I got to tell you that I just love the new Geico commercial with the pigeons on the wire talking about “Firing at Will.” Some think there is a person or pigeon down there named Will who will soon be shot at, while another said; “It is just an expression of speech.” This commercial got me to thinking about what are some of the expressions we use regularly and where did they come from. So, let’s see if we can find some of these. Tim Lambert helps me to discover the meanings below.
“Bite the Bullet:” Means to grin and bear a painful situation. It comes from the days before anesthetics. A soldier about to undergo an operation was given a bullet to bite. (Count me out of that one).
“Bee Line:” In the past people believed that bees flew in a straight line to their hives. So, if you made a bee line for something you went straight for it. Been there, done that.
“Baker’s Dozen:” Usually means thirteen. It is said to come from the days when bakers were severely punished for baking underweight loaves of bread. Some added a loaf to a batch of a dozen to be above suspicion. Don’t you just love the thirteenth doughnut?
“Beyond the Pale:” Originally a pale was an area under the authority of a certain official. In the 14th and 15th centuries the English king ruled Dublin and the surrounding area known as the pale. Anyone beyond the pale was seen as savage and dangerous.
“The Bitter End:” Anchor cable was wrapped around posts called bitts. The last piece of cable was called the bitter end. If you let out the cable to the bitter end there was nothing else you could do, you had reached the end of your resources.
“Born With a Silver Spoon in Your Mouth:” Once when a child was christened it was traditional for the godparents to give a silver spoon as a gift (if they could afford it!). However, a child born in a rich family did not have to wait. He or she had it all from the start. They were ‘born with a silver spoon in their mouth’.
“Cold Enough to Freeze the Balls off a Brass Monkey:” A brass monkey was a brass rack on which cannonballs were stacked. If it were very cold the brass rack would contract faster than the iron balls. Therefore, the balls would fall off.
“Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth:” Means don’t examine a gift too closely! You can tell a horse’s age by looking at its teeth, which is why people ‘look a horse in the mouth.’
“Dyed in the Wool:” I just used this yesterday – Wool that was dyed before it was woven kept its color better than wool dyed after weaving of ‘dyed in the piece.’
“Flash in the Pan:” Muskets had a priming pan, which was filled with gunpowder. When flint hit steel, it ignited the powder in the pan, which in turn ignited the main charge of gunpowder and fired the musket ball. However, sometimes the powder in the pan failed to light the main charge. In that case, you had a flash in the pan… but no musket ball fired.
“Hobson’s Choice:” Means to have no choice at all. In the 16th century and the early 17th century if you went on a journey you could hire a horse to take you from one town to another and travel using a relay of horses. (That was better than wearing out your own horse on a long journey over very poor roads). In the early 1600s Thomas Hobson was a man in Cambridge who hired out horses. However, he would not let customers choose which horse they wanted to ride. Instead they had to ride whichever horse was nearest the stable entrance. So, if you hired a horse from him you were given ‘Hobson’s choice’.
“Humble Pie:” The expression to eat humble pie was once to eat umble pie. The umbles were the intestines or less appetizing parts of an animal and servants and other lower class people ate them. So, if a deer was killed the rich ate venison and those of low status ate umble pie. In time, it became corrupted to eat humble pie and came to mean to debase yourself or act with humility.
My dad use to have a couple of phrases I believed he used as cruse words. One was: “I’ll be John Brown” and the other is “What in the Sam Hill?”
Sam Hill: Sam Hill is an American English slang phrase, a euphemism or minced oath for “the devil” or “hell” personified (as in, “What in the Sam Hill is that?”). Etymologist Michael Quinion and others date the expression back to the late 1830s Also Sam Hill was a mercantile store owner who offered a vast and diverse inventory of goods. People began using the term “what in the Sam Hill is that?” to describe something they found odd or unusual, just like the inventory found in Sam Hill’s store. The original Sam Hill Mercantile building still stands on Montezuma Street in Prescott, Arizona, and is listed on the register of Historic Place.
John Brown was an American abolitionist who believed armed insurrection was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. During 1856 in Kansas, Brown commanded forces at the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie. Brown’s followers also killed five pro-slavery supporters at Pottawatomie. In 1859, Brown led an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry that ended with his capture. Brown’s trial resulted in his conviction and a sentence of death by hanging. Brown’s attempt in 1859 to start a liberation movement among enslaved African Americans in Harpers Ferry, Virginia electrified the nation. He was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty on all counts and was hanged. My dad saying: “I’ll be John Brown” simply meant: “I’ll be hanged!”
What kind of sayings are you using? What do you believe them to mean? Or do you even know or care what they mean… they just seem to flow well and sound cool. What would be cool would be that once said those who heard it will not be brought down, insulted or embarrassed. Perhaps we could all turn our cherished sayings into words that uplift and encourage.
Grace and Peace