90 Miles From Tyranny : The Origins Of Words And Phrases

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

The 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!"
Meghan McCarthy compiled a list of the phrases and words that she finds 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 she has decided to include only the most interesting theories.

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.


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