Origins of Words and Phrases

Ever wonder about a particular   saying and where it came from? Have you come up empty handed? Are you stumped?   Well look no further! Some of the answers will have you saying “son of   a gun!”

I’ve compiled a list of   the phrases and words that I find most interesting. Some of the sayings are   hundreds of years old and their exact origins remain a mystery. Opinions vary  about the exact derivations of some, but I’ve decided to include only the most   interesting theories.

Check back soon for a bibliography.

raining       cats and dogs       – If you’ve corrected your child after he or she took this phrase literally,       you may owe them a slight apology! The origin of this saying dates back       to the 1600s. Poor drainage systems on buildings in the 17th century caused       gutters to overflow, spewing out along with water, garbage and a few unexpected       critters. It is possible that animals such as rodents lived in the thatched       roofs and when it rained heavily, the dead carcasses would fall––undoubtedly       unpleasant! As far as large dogs falling from the sky…well…that one       will have to remain a mystery.
to       be stumped       – Be stumped no more! Being “stumped” comes from the pioneering       days when the land was cleared to lay down train tracks. When the workers       came across a tree stump, it would cause a dilemma or “to be stumped.”
wrong       side of the tracks       -Before there were cars, trains were an important means of transportation.       Of course, pollution wasn’t a big concern so when a train rolled by, heavy       black smoke and soot went with it. Usually the wind blew the black smoke       to one side of the tracks and only the poorest of people would endure living       in that hard to breathe environment. No one wanted to be on “the wrong       side of the tracks.”
rule       of thumb -No, this phrase is definitely NOT “P.C”! Who knew? Some people think”Rule         of thumb” is derived from the days when woman were sometimes beaten with         a switch. To be “kind” the switch could not be thicker than a thumb’s width.         This was made law in 1782 when an English judge stated that men were allowed       to beat their wives but that the stick could not be thicker than one’s thumb.

There are other theories about the origin of this phrase. Perhaps using ones thumb to measure a switch is folk lore after all….

to       propose a toast       – This often used phrase comes from an 18th century punch bowl drink made       with cider, cinnamon, cloves, and other spices and garnished with pieces       of toast that would float on top. I’m unsure of the purpose of the toast       and can’t imagine a burnt piece of bread being “decorative,” but       next New Years Eve, don’t forget to include the toast!
Good       Samaritan       – comes from from the Bible (Luke 10:30-33), in which Jesus tells the parable       of a priest who passes by a man in need of help, laying on the ground. A       Samaritan, who was part of the enemy tribe, helps the man up and back to       health when the priest does not…the message being that you should treat       your enemy with the same good respect as your friend. Other meanings can       also be extracted, such as the golden rule: treat others the way you would       like to be treated, and so on.
upper       and lower case letters       – I’ve heard that the term started when letters were hand carved out of       wood and were then laid out to be type set. The letters were kept on a two       shelves in the work space…the big letters, or the upper case ones were       kept on the top or “upper” shelf and the small or lower case letters were       kept on the “lower” shelf to make it easy for the printer to keep things       organized.
wrong       end of the stick       -If you imaged the most disgusting origin then you were right! I’ve heard       two explanations that vary slightly. One comes from the outhouse days when       there were no flushing toilets and the other dates back much earlier, to       the days of the Roman baths. Regardless, the outcome was the same! The person       in the next stall may have asked for their neighbor to “pass the stick,”       instead of toilet paper since that was yet to exist. The stick had a sponge       on one end and if the recipient grabbed the wrong end, they’d be getting       the wrong end of the stick. Most definitely unpleasant!
mad       as a hatter       – This phrase comes from the days when felt hats were made using a mercury       on some cheaper furs, that caused the hatter to go mad, thus the “mad hatter”       in Alice In Wonderland. Mercury poisoning caused tremors, brain damage,       tooth loss, slurred speech, and more. A “mad hatter” was one to       be avoided. I think the lesson to be learned is 1) don’t make your own hats       and 2) don’t use mercury!
Everything       but the kitchen sink       – comes from World War Two when everything possible was used to contribute       to the war effort…all metal was used for the U.S arsenal. The only objects       left out were porcelain kitchen sinks. Does anyone still have a porcelain       sink?
big       wig– Picture       a big puffy white haired gentleman and then you’ll be picturing a “big       wig.” This term is derived from powdered wigs worn by men in the 18th       century. The bigger the wig, the more wealthy the individual. Who knows,       perhaps someday wigs for men will go back in style!
son       of a gun       – One version of this saying is that sailors traveling to the west Indies       sometimes raped native woman on ships, which sometimes occurred between       the cannons. When a woman gave birth to a son, he was called “son between       the guns.” This term was used later, using the word”gun” to mean soldier.       His son would thus be called a “son of a gun.” Other etymologists speculate       that son of a gun meant an illegitimate son of a soldier, who would be nicknamed       “gun.” How “son of a gun” transformed into it’s current       usage is unknown…well I”ll be damned or “son of a gun!”

don’t throw the         baby out with the bath water         – What’s one to do when they only have one basin of bath water and a litter         of children to be bathed? Easy! Use the same bath water and dump it out         when your last child gets lost in it! Back in the pre-running water days,         the order of the household determined which family member got to take         the bath first. The man (or head of the household) naturally went first,         followed by the children and the baby last. The water would become so         dirty that when a baby was bathed in it, he could possibly be lost or         even tossed out! Of course, one would hope that the parents would have         enough common sense to check first!

cut       to the chase       -Remember going to watch those old black and white silent films? Sure you       do! Well, you’ve probably heard of them, anyway. In the black and white       silent film movie era, in the 1920s, a chase scene was often the exciting       part of the film. Who really wanted to sit through that other stuff, anyway?       Cut to the chase meant to cut the film, or edit it down to the good part,       the chase scene––no speaking necessary!
spick       and span –       Perhaps you’ve polished your car and it looked “spick and span”       or maybe one day you were convinced       to buy that new cleaning product on TV because you were assured that your       kitchen would be “spick and span” after usage. The phrase is derived       from two archaic words: spick, which was a spike or nail and span, which       meant “wood chip.” When a ship was polished and new, it was called       “spick and span,” meaning every nail and piece of wood was untarnished.       The phrase originally meant “brand new” but is now used to indicate       cleanliness.

1 Comment

Filed under Humor and Observations, Writing

One response to “Origins of Words and Phrases

  1. Very cool post! I’m especially surprised about Thumb Rule!


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