Wednesday, February 17, 2010

From A to Z

When I started researching last week’s blog, I ended up with more info than I could use in one week. Oh yay! So today’s blog is a carry-over and will cover idioms. If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you know that idioms are real stumpers. They never translate exactly. For example, I studied German in college and came across the phrase “Er hat einen Vogel,” which literally means “He has a bird.” That makes sense if there’s a parrot cage sitting in the living room. But when the phrase is uttered in the middle of a busy street or while riding the subway, it no longer makes sense. Er hat einen Vogel” is the way of saying “He's nuts” and is often accompanied by gesturing toward the head.

So what about American idioms? We have loads and we use them every day. But how did they come to be used?

Armed to the teeth: This is a pirate phrase originating in Jamaica in the 1600's. Pirates had only single shot pistols and cutlasses, and they would carry as many weapons at once so they could fight longer. One of these weapons was usually a knife carried between their teeth.

Back-handed compliment: Back-handed is synonymous with left-handed. For example in tennis, a backhand stroke is a strike by a right-handed player from the left side of the body. The Latin word for left is sinister, and back-handed has come to mean roundabout, indirect or devious.

Close, but no cigar: Carnival games of skill, particularly shooting games, once gave cigars as prizes. Someone who did not quite hit the target was close, but did not get a cigar.

Dressed to the nines: Common lore tells us that a top quality suit requires more fabric and that the best ones use nine yards. This is because a properly made suit requires all pieces to be cut in the same direction of the fabric’s weave. Thus, there’s a lot of waste in suit-making, but if you want to be “dressed to the nines” you must pay for the waste.

Eyes are bigger than your stomach: Someone seeing a table piled high with delicious food has a tendency to take too much. The problem is brought on by the eyes and a lack of reason and control.

From stem to stern: The very front of a ship is called the stem, the rear is called the stern. From stem to stern includes the entire ship and also refers to the entirety of anything else..

Get a leg up: This has nothing to do with a urinating dog. Getting a leg up is an equestrian receiving help in mounting a horse. A stable helper cups his/her hands to help lift the rider up and onto the horse.

High on the hog: The best meat is on the upper portion of the pig. Rich people have always been afforded this luxury while the servants, slaves and poor have always had to eat pig's feet, chitterlings, cracklings, etc. - low on the hog.

In the doldrums: Doldrums is the name of a place in the ocean that is located near the equator and is noted for unstable winds. A sailing ship caught in the Doldrums could be stranded from lack of wind.

Jump on the bandwagon: Old time political campaigns would use parades with bands to woo supporters for a candidate. Jumping on the band’s wagon showed support for the candidate.

Knock on wood: One theory has this phrase originating in the middle ages when pieces of the cross on which Jesus was crucified were in circulation. Touching one of these pieces was supposed to bring good luck.

Long in the tooth: A horse’s gums recede with age, so the age of a horse can be determined approximately by looking at the teeth. The longer the teeth appear, the older the horse.

Mind your Ps and Qs: This comes from early pub days when beer and ale were served in pint and quart containers. A chalkboard was used to tally the number of pints (Ps) and quarts (Qs) consumed.

No spring chicken: New England chicken farmers found that chickens born in the spring sold for higher prices than older birds, which had survived the cold winter. Some unscrupulous farmers would try to pass off older birds as new, spring-born chickens. Buyers would complain that a tough, old bird was no spring chicken.

Once in a blue moon: Two full moons in the same month are extremely rare, but they do happen. A second full moon has come to be called a blue moon. This is apparently because the Maine Farmers Almanac used to list the date of first moon in red text, and the second moon in blue.

Passed with flying colors: An early use of the word “color” is flag, pennant, or badge. "Passed with flying colors" comes from sailing ships that would fly their colors when passing other ships so they could be properly identified.

Quickie: This was originally used in the late 1920s in Hollywood as slang for a Grade B movie – a movie that was comparatively cheap and quick to produce. A decade later, the term was being used to mean a quick sex act.

Rule of thumb: Based on the use of ones thumb as a rough measurement tool. Generally correct for course measures. Most old English measures of distance were based on the body measurements of the king -- the length of the foot, inch (thumb tip to first knuckle), cubit (elbow-to-fingertip), and yard (nose-to-fingertip).

Sleep tight: Before box springs were in use, old bed frames used rope pulled tightly between the frame rails to support a mattress. If the rope became loose, the mattress would sag making for uncomfortable sleeping. Tightening the ropes would help one get a good night sleep.

Toe the line: This term comes from military line-ups for inspection. Soldiers are expected to line up, that is put their toes on a line, and submit to the inspection.

Under the weather: Passengers aboard ships become seasick most frequently during times of rough seas and bad weather. Seasickness is caused by the constant rocking motion of the ship. Sick passengers go below deck, which provides shelter from the weather, but just as importantly the sway is not as great below deck, low on the ship. On a ship the greatest swaying action is on deck, and the most stable point is down near the keel. Hence seasick passengers tend to feel better below deck.

Vicious circle: A vicious circle was the name given by 18th century logicians for the proof A depends on B, B depends on C and C depends on A.

White elephant: From the Burmese belief that albino elephants are sacred. They can't be used for work and they must be lavished with the ultimate amount of care.
Giving a gift of a white elephant would be done to someone considered an enemy. The idea being that you would eventually wipe out your enemy's wealth with the care of the sacred elephant.

X marks the spot: This is from the earliest days of newspaper photography where the scene of the crime would be shown with an X to mark where the deed was done. It goes back even further in romantic accounts of such things as pirate treasure maps.

Your name is mud: Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set the broken leg of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth is sometimes given as the origin of the. However, other sources show recorded instance in 1823, ten years before Mudd's birth, and based on an obsolete sense of the word mud meaning a stupid fellow.

Zero hour: This comes from the military and indicates the time at which a planned operation is set to begin. Military time uses a 24 hour clock that begins at midnight or 0000 hours.

So there you have it – idioms from A to Z. Got a favorite amongst these? Or another favorite? How about our foreign readers? Tell us about idioms from your country.


Barbara Vey said...

Thanks for the explanations. I can now amaze my grandchildren with the meanings behind my sometimes "weird" comments.

Problem Child said...

Idioms were always the hardest thing to explain to my foreign students. And I'm terribly guilty of using them, so I often got confused looks from them.

But idioms are fun, and I always taught them, simply because you struggle in a community when you don't understand their idioms.

Slang is a whole 'nother bear to wrestle...

Cheryl said...

Ok, this is one you can use in the romance genre (ha) - Hit it off: To "hit it off" originally meant to "strike the scent" as in hunting. So, two people who find they have something in common "hit the scent" and are off.
Or "Hussy" - a corruption of the word "housewife." Ok, so now I am a hussy...

Instigator said...

I love reading these! Sometimes I forget how fun the English language really is. :-)


Angel said...

How cool! It's neat to see where things like this originate. Barbara, I too will have fun pulling out these explanations when my children look at me in confusion. :)


PM's Mother said...

If you want to explore idioms further, there are three books by Charles Earl Funk (Harper & Collins Publishing Co.) that will keep you occupied a long time--"Hog on Ice & other curious expressions",
"Horse Feathers & other curious words" and "Heavens To Betsy & other curious sayings". Happy reading!

catslady said...

Those were great. I especially liked hearing about the blue moon - I knew it was the second moon but not why it was called blue - thanks for all of them!

Laurie said...

I always wonder where the phrase "It's raining cats and dogs" came from.

The internet says it might come from early London. The poor sanitation left dead animals and debris in the streets. So that when it rained hard everything was swept along. Gross!!