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Please begin with an informative title:

Welcome to The Mad Logophile. Here, we explore words; their origins, evolution, usage. Words are alive; they are born, they change and, sometimes, they die. They are our principal tool for communicating with one another. There are over one million words in the English language yet only an estimated 171,476 words are in common current use. As a logophile, I enjoy discovering new words, using them and learning about their origins. Please join in.
Well, I'm back. Thanks for being so patient :-)

Every day we read, hear or use phrases such as put the kibosh on or mend fences. These colorful parts of our language have rich and interesting backgrounds. We'll take a look at some of those here. We won't deal with phrases which refer to animals or body parts this time. There are so many of those that they each deserve their own discussions. Gleaning from myth and trade, from politics and warfare, and many other places, I found plenty to involve us tonight.


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

When we search everywhere, looking in every place we can, we are said to leave no stone unturned. This was advice from the Delphic oracle to Polycrates, who had failed to find the hidden treasure of the Persian general he defeated at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). The advice was successfully followed.

Despite what some may think, the phrase to call a spade a spade is in no way racist. It traces its origins back to ancient Greece where a popular proverb for plain speaking was to call figs figs, and a tub a tub. When Erasmus wrote his Adagia (a collection of Greek and Latin proverbs), he substituted spade for tub. Erasmus' version stuck and has been in popular use ever since.

When we counsel someone to be careful of a previously unsympathetic person who comes to offer a favor, we will tell them to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. That, of course, comes from Virgil's Aeneid, in which Laocoon warns the Trojans not to accept the wooden horse from the Greeks. That, of course, was to prove their undoing. This is also the source of the term Trojan horse as a metaphor for a concealed danger, especially one designed to subvert from within.

If we are caught in a difficult position, we are said to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis. In Greek myth, the Strait of Messina was the dwelling place of a whirlpool, Charybdis, and a monster, Scylla. Scylla was originally a sea nymph who ran afoul of Poseidon's wife. Charybdis was also a nymph who was transformed by Zeus. That fickle old god!  

If we complete a task of great intensity or difficulty, we are said to have made a Herculean effort. This refers to the Greek demi-god Heracles (Hercules in Roman) who was famous for his immense strength. We also sometimes use the term Olympian effort, referring to a task befitting the Immortals.

Something that is seductive or deceptive, that entices us despite ourselves is known as a siren's song. This is after the Greek sea nymphs, part woman and part bird, supposed to lure sailors to their destruction by their seductive singing.

When we win a battle at a great cost, we are said to win a Pyrrhic victory. Circa 275 BC Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, crossed into southern Italy to help the Greek city-states against early Rome. He won a number of costly victories over the Romans. This phrase derives from these, notably from the Battle of Asculum after which he noted; One more such victory and we are lost. In due course, he was defeated and returned to Greece.  

Sometimes we are forced to make a decision from which there is no turning back. At this, we are said to have crossed the Rubicon. The Rubicon was a small river which formed part of the boundary between ancient Italy and Cisalpine Gaul (now northern Italy). In 49 BC, Julius Caesar made the decision to cross this river from where he dwelt in Gaul and to march into Rome. This precipitated war between him and Pompey and led to his ruling Rome and his eventual assassination.

An achievement that one can take pride is is known as a feather in one's cap. This is a reference to the plumes worn in the helmets of knights as a sign of their distinction. The attribution of this phrase to to American Indian custom is suspect. The expression has been metaphorical in English since the 16th century, which makes an American origin unlikely.

Occasionally we will have to make our way through a difficult situation, where we may be attacked from both sides, or run the gauntlet. The gauntlet is not, in this case, a glove, but a corruption of the Swedish gata (lane) and lopp (running course). This was a 17th century military punishment in which a culprit was stripped to the waist and made to run between two rows of men who aimed blows at him with sticks or knotted ropes.

Originally a military term having to do with the literal clearing away of an enemy, we now use the coast is clear to denote safety or a lack of obstacles.

When two opposing sides make peace, they are said to bury the hatchet. This comes from an American Indian custom of burying a tomahawk or other weapon to mark peace between tribes. It is found in writing as early as the 18th century and came into general use by being popularized in such works as Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha.

When someone must face the consequences of their actions, they are told they must face the music. In the earliest sense this meant simply to meet a test without flinching. The modern sense emerged later and is almost certainly military, either from forcing a cavalry horse to face the regimental band to accustom it to the noise, or from formally expelling a disgraced soldier to the beat of drums.

When there is a big reaction to something, we might say there is a hue and cry. If we did, we'd actually be redundant because since hue comes from the Old French huer (to cry out) and cry obviously means the same thing. Common law in the Middle Ages held that if someone chasing a criminal were to call out for help, people hearing the cry and failing to assist could be found guilty of a misdemeanor.

Sometimes, when buying baked goods, you may buy a baker's dozen. This phrase originated from the practice of English bakers of adding a small loaf to a dozen so as not to break the law. The Assize of Bread and Ale was enacted by Henry III in 1266, which regulated the price of bread according to the price of wheat. Bakers or brewers who gave short measure could be fined, pilloried or flogged. To avoid this, the bakers would add a small loaf to the dozen just to make sure that the total weight wasn't short.

Legal and official documents have been bound with red tape since the 17th century. When we use the term, we are usually referring to unnecessary bureaucracy. The first time it was used in that sense was in The Pleader's Guide (1796), a spoof verse, satirizing the fussiness of English law.

When someone wins at a County Fair, they are awarded a blue ribbon. If a group of the very best minds is assembled to study something, they are called a blue ribbon panel. The blue ribbon is the emblem of The Order of the Garter, one of Britain's highest orders of knighthood. Only the sovereign can bestow it. By extension, the blue ribbon connotes excellence and the highest honor.

In the British Parliament there are the front benches,where the leaders of the government sit and back benches, where  members sit in the House of Commons. The term to take a back seat refers to the relative low influence of persons and issues from the back benches.

In 1879, the American Senator John Sherman made a speech in Mansfield, Ohio, saying, "I have come home to look after my fences." Whatever he meant by this, it was interpreted as his coming to campaign. No doubt the proverb good fences make good neighbors influenced this interpretation. That particular saying dates back to the 17th century. Mend fences became an Americanism for looking after your interests.  Since then has mutated to suggest the rebuilding of good relationships, possibly due to Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall.

The etymology of putting the kibosh on is dubious; it's possibly from Yiddish. But the most persuasive explanation derives kibosh from the Irish cie bais, meaning cap of death and referring to a judge passing a sentence of death. The latter clearly relates to the modern meaning and could have been brought over by Irish immigrants.

When we deal with basic realities, hard facts or details we are said to get down to brass tacks. This phrase comes to us from the measuring of fabric. In fabric shops a strip of brass (a yard/metre long) is often set along the edge of the counter so that material can easily be measured. Sometimes the strip was replaced with a set of brass tacks set the proper distance apart. After a customer had selected a fabric, the time would come to work out the practical details of measurement and price at the brass tacks.

Getting fired is often known as getting sacked or getting the sack. Journeyman mechanics and other craftsmen would provide their own tools and carry them from job to job in a bag. Often, the employer provided a place to store the sack during work hours so that the workman could work with a few tools while storing the others nearby. If an employer let a workman go, he would hand him his bag.

Some of us may have had an occasion when the phrase fly off the handle could be applied to them (who, me?...um.. no comment). This originally referred to an axe handle which, especially as in the early days of American expansion, could be part of a handmade tool. If the axe head were to fly off the handle during a swing, the results could be extremely dangerous.

If something is completely decided or fixed beforehand, we say it is cut and dried. This originally applied to the cutting of herbs in the field, which would then be dried over a warm stove or fire, so that they could be sold cut and dried, ready for immediate use.

Hopefully, most of us have a nest egg set aside. A nest egg is an artificial egg placed in a hen's nest or nesting-box to induce laying. It is used figuratively probably because of the idea of there always being an egg in the nest, even if there were no new ones forthcoming.

The name Jack is a diminutive or affectionate of John, one of the commonest names in Western society. Consequently, Jack has come to mean an ordinary man, fellow, chap, etc. in many different phrases. One of the most popular is jack of all trades, meaning a fellow who is skilled in many different disciplines.

We use the phrase by and large when we are speaking generally of something. Coming to us from the days of sailing ships, to steer a course by and large was to keep slightly off the line of the wind when steering into it so that there was less need for constant adjustment. This implied freedom from special alertness, and this is its sense in modern use. If the helmsman was not good enough to steer by and large, the ship might be taken aback. If the wind pressed the sails back against the mast, this would prevent forward movement.

Also a nautical term, to know the ropes meant that a sailor was familiar with the complexities of ropes, knots, rigging, etc. It pretty much means the same thing now but has expanded to include any task.

Ever since Charles Dodgson wrote a story for young Alice Liddell, the phrase mad as a hatter has been popular. But its use dates back the the early 17th century. It may be related to the use of a mercury compound in the treatment of felt in hat-making. The vapor from this was said to cause twitching in the limbs and affect the brain. It is believed that Lewis Carroll based his character on Theophilus Carter, a furniture dealer who was known locally as the "mad hatter" because he wore a top hat and devised fanciful inventions such as an alarm-clock bed which tipped the sleeper to the floor when it was time to wake up. Carrol's Alice in Wonderland also popularized mad as a March hare. This is also and older expression which grew from the fact that the hare is prone to skittish behavior in March because it is the mating season.

Using tact and calm to diffuse a violent situation is often referred to as pouring oil on troubled waters. This phrase comes from a story from Bede's Ecclesiastical History. In the story, a priest was escorting a lady on a sea journey. St Aidan had given the priest a container of holy oil to pour on the sea if it became rough. The seas did and the oil was used, smoothing the journey.

If we avoid something we are said to give a wide berth to it. Another nautical term, the berth refers to the slip in which a ship would anchor. A wide one was especially important in the old days of swinging the anchor.

Someone who is perfect for a job or task could be said to fill the bill. In the early days of American theater, most theaters had a variety of acts on the bill, or roster of entertainers. Often, a certain number of acts were required to give the audience a proper night's entertainment. If the bill was short, a new act might be given a chance to fill the bill or round out the program.

Also from the early days of theater comes the term to be in the limelight. Before electric lighting, theater stages were illuminated by the intense white light produced by heating lime in an oxyhydrogen flame. Both the mechanism and the light it produced was called a limelight. Being in the limelight meant you were the center of attention. It still does. (It's also a great song by Rush)

To steal someone's thunder means to upstage someone. It also is from the early days of theater and provides an interesting story:

John Dennis (1657-1734), best remembered as a critic but also an ineffective poet and dramatist, wrote a dismal tragedy called Appius and Virginia (1709) for which he invented a device for making stage thunder. His bitterness at the play's early demise was enhanced when he heard his own thunder-device being used in a subsequent production of someone else's play. The closely-knit and often malicious literary world of Queen Anne's London would have enjoyed his complaint that his thunder had been stolen - and was in greater demand than his play.
Most of us have seen or been around someone who was three sheets to the wind. This term for an out-of-control drunk is another nautical phrase. Sheets are ropes attached to sails which are let out or pulled in to adjust the sails' positions. If they are loose then the sails are loose and the result is loss of control. A drunken person was said to be a sheet to the wind. Three sheets meant one was inordinately drunk.

When you eat in a Mexican restaurant, the waitperson will always admonish you that the plate is very hot. Piping hot, in fact. A dish that is piping hot is one so hot it makes a sizzling or whistling sound, like a piper. This expression is first recorded in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The Miller's Tale says: Wafers piping hot out of the gleed. A wafer is a kind of thin cake and gleed is the hot coals of a fire.

Someone who is in very good health is often said to be in the pink. Shakespeare first used the pink, a garden flower of the carnation family, as an analogy for a perfect embodiment of a particular quality. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio says: I am the very pink of courtesy. This comparison was taken up and spread to other conditions such as in the pink of very good condition, which eventually was shortened to the phrase we use today.

Most of us have had a time when we were down in the dumps. No, it's not a reference to where the garbage is piled (though we may well feel that way) but is an Anglicism of the Northern European dumpin, meaning melancholy. People have used this expression as far back as the 15th century. A ballad thought to have been composed by the bard Richard Sheale around 1475 mourns: I wail, as one in doleful dumps.

When someone is frenzied or out of control, they can be said to run amok. This comes from a Malayan word amoq, which describes the behavior of certain tribesmen who would work themselves into a murderous frenzy (under the influence of opium, perhaps) and lash out at anyone they came across. It was introduced to the Western world in the 17th century and spelled in various ways. Today amok is the preferred spelling although one may still see amuck used.

As even landlubbers know, the deep ocean is known as Davy Jones's locker. Thanks to the Pirates of the Caribbean films, we even know what ol' Davy looks like. But who is he? There are many suggestions as to where the term came from. Some say Davy is a corruption of the West Indian duppy, a ghost or mischievous spirit. Some think that Jones is a form of Jonah, both a biblical reference and sailor's slang for bad luck. Still another idea is that Davy Jones was a 16th century pub owner in London. His pub was popular with sailors but also a place for press-ganging unwary citizens into service. These unlucky chaps would be drugged and taken to ships, only to awaken when the ship was far at sea. Perhaps the lockers were in the basement of this pub. But no definitive source has turned up, so all we have is conjecture and great stories.

When we give our very best effort, we are said to have given it our level best. This phrase dates back to the California gold rush of the late 19th century. When panning for gold, the nuggets (or, more often, flakes) can best be spotted when the material in the pan is held level.

Something that hits the target or is forthright can be said to be point-blank. In the Middle Ages archery targets were white, blanc in French. The point may refer to the tip of the arrow. Then, as now, point-blank meant too close to miss or a well-pointed shot.

To keep the ball rolling is to keep up the level of activity or enthusiasm for a project or task. This was preceded by the similar, now archaic, British phrase keep the ball up. The current version of the phrase owes its origin and popularity to the US presidential election of July 1840. That election was the first to produce all the sorts of paraphernalia that we now associate with an election, including campaign songs and advertising slogans. Incumbent President Martin Van Buren was pitted against the Whig candidate, General William Harrison. Harrison's campaign made use of Victory Balls. These weren't, as we might expect, dance parties but ten-foot diameter globes made of tin and leather. These were pushed from one campaign rally to the next. His supporters were invited to attend rallies and push the ball on to the next town, chanting keep the ball rolling.

Something honest or without deception is above board. In this case, board means a table (as in bed and board). This was originally a gambling term. When playing, one was expected to keep one's hands above the board to avoid suspicions of cheating.

President Harry Truman was famous for never passing the buck. President Truman was a keen poker player. The buck in question was a knife or other item temporarily held by the winner of the jackpot. When the deal reached him a new jackpot was made and the responsibility of holding the buck was passed on. In other versions, the buck is placed on the table to indicate whom the dealer is. In either case, the buck is then passed on clockwise. The earliest use of the phrase outside of poker was by Mark Twain around 1872. By the time Truman was POTUS, passing the buck had come to signify an evasion or denial of responsibility. Something he was not willing to do.

Someone we laud and honor may be said to take the cake. Despite popular belief, this does not just refer to the cakewalk. Back in the 5th century BC, Aristophanes  is quoted as saying, "If you surpass him in impudence, we take the cake." The cake in question was a treat made of toasted cereal and honey. It was awarded to the  most vigilant man on a night watch. The phrase came into common use to refer to any prize for any event.

When we get e-mails from right-wing groups, we might want to tell them that they are barking up the wrong tree (among other things... some unprintable). This Americanism comes from hunting, especially raccoon. Being a nocturnal animal, the raccoon had to hunted at night. Sometimes the hounds charged with chasing and treeing the beast would lose track of it and sit at the bottom of the wrong tree, baying away. This colorful phrase was first found in print in a book by Davy Crockett in 1833.

Race car drivers and others who enjoy speed are often said to be going balls to the walls. This doesn't refer, as we might think, to features of the male anatomy (ahem). It is a term used in aviation. On an airplane, the handles controlling the throttle and fuel mixture are often topped with ball-shaped grips, referred to by pilots as (naturally enough) balls. Pushing the balls forward, towards the wall of the cockpit, applies full throttle and the highest possible speed.

We might say that a good speaker has the gift of gab. Gab is related to the word gob (which is slang for the mouth) and means too much talking. To blow the gab is to reveal a secret. The gift of gab comes to us having lost the original pejorative meaning of gab.

There are times when a laugh is called for but not decorous. At such a time, one may laugh up one's sleeve. Secretive laughing referred to by this phrase was in one's best interest in the 14th century when it was first recorded, especially if the object of said laughter was someone of a higher class. The long sleeves fashionable at that time would have made good cover for the illicit smirk or giggle.  

When we put something into its proper or best condition, we are said to lick it into shape. This stems from the ancient belief that bear cubs are born formless and that the mother bear literally licks them into their proper shape. This error is recorded as early as the 4th century in the Mediterranean area and the first reference in English was in The Pilgrimage Of Souls in 1413: Bears be brought forth all foul and transformed and after that by licking of the father and the mother they be brought into their kindly (natural) shape. I wonder is Stephen Colbert knows about this?

Someone who has a private grievance or ulterior motive can be said to have an axe to grind. We owe the popularity of this phrase to Ben Franklin, who wrote in his Too Much for your Whistle, about an incident when he was a young man: a man got him to turn a heavy grindstone by asking how it worked. In reality the man merely wished to sharpen his axe. From this, Franklin drew the lesson to be cautious about the motives behind a person's smooth talk. Maybe they just had an axe to grind.

This past week, Rachel Maddow really humbled and shamed certain Congress critters. You might say she took them down a peg. The peg in this case, is the tuning peg of a musical instrument. As any lute player knows, to lower the pitch of the strings, you turn the peg. This meaning, of lowering someone's self-importance, has been with us for centuries.

Remember that hit by the Commodores, Brick House? Ever wonder why a beautiful woman would be compared to a brick outbuilding? Well, according the the Random House Dictionary:

(a) the phrase and its euphemistic variants date back at least to 1903; (b) said variants replace shithouse with shanty, schoolhouse, slaughterhouse, or backhouse, among others; and (c) all were originally - and more sensibly - applied to men of solid or powerful build. When said of women, one 1938 source notes, the phrase usually meant a "heavy, cloddish, sexually unappetizing female." But even in the 1930s a few wiseguys were applying it to attractive women, and in the U.S. that usage has now supplanted all others.
Well, that works for me, I guess.

Someone who is down and out, living in poverty is often said to be on skid row. This was originally skid road and comes from an actual place. I've even been there. Logging helped build Seattle but the logs were on a hill and the port was at the bottom. How to get the logs to the port easily? A ramp was built of other logs and the cut logs were slid down the hill to the harbor. We also get the term greasing the skids from this practice. Building along Skid Road were not very desirable so it was lined with saloons, brothels and flophouse. Only the very poor actually lived there. The original Skid Road is now known as Yesler Way and the rents are now very, very high.

While Skid Road was the place to find prostitutes in Seattle, in other places they were in the red light district. The color reed has been associated with ladies of the evening for a century, at least. Prostitutes would put red shades on candles and electric lamps, and place these lights in their windows to advertise their trade. This is still done in Amsterdam and other places. In America, the red light may have come from the railroads. Railroad crews used red lanterns for signaling and lighting, and most crew members carried one with them. When they paid a visit to a soiled dove, they would leave the lantern on the porch of her house while they were inside. That way, other customers knew that she was occupied. Most major cities had a bustling red-light districts. Lawmakers and authorities settled for confining such activity to one area, making it easier to police and to regulate.

When we are in big trouble, we sometimes say we are up the creek without a paddle (or up shit creek). This expression goes back about a century and was probably first referred to as Salt Creek... A popular political campaign song in 1884 was "Blaine Up Salt Creek." A salt creek is one that goes through marshland to the ocean and which is very easy to get stuck in. And without a paddle makes things even worse. Somehow, the word shit replaced salt to make the situation even more dire.

All of us have snippets of traditional wisdom or lore that we may have learned from Grandma, an old wive's tale. Wife originally simply meant woman. A similar expression was used in early Greece and the first usage in English dates back to 1387. Old wives are, of course, full of common wisdom and were often their community's only source of health care. Many modern medicines descend from the cures of old wives; aspirin from willow bark, heart medications from hawthorne berries, cancer drugs from periwinkle flowers, etc. The Top Ten old wive's tales that are untrue can be found here.

On April first, many of us celebrate April Fools Day (some more than others) and cries of April Fool are heard. This is said to exist because of the Western world's adoption of a new calendar in 1582. But this doesn't explain the widespread celebrations; England didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752 but April Fools Day was already well established there by then. Most cultures have some kind of "spring fever" festival on or around the Equinox. The Romans had the Hilaria on March 25, the Hindu calendar has Holi, and the Jewish calendar has Purim. There must be something about the turning from winter to spring that lends itself to lighthearted celebrations.

A gentleman who is a natty dresser (Keith Olbermann, perhaps?) is often called a Beau Brummell. This is a high compliment indeed. During England's Regency period (1811-1820) George Bryan (Beau) Brummell taught men how to dress, almost single-handedly changing the entire look of the male wardrobe in a revolution called The Great Masculine Renunciation. We also get the term dandy for a well-groomed man from him. He claimed to take five hours to dress, and recommended that boots be polished with champagne. Sounds like he'd be a natural for Wall Street... ;-)

The old (and new) hippies among us will have been within hearing distance of the term, don't bogart that joint. Nowadays, one can bogart anything but when this expression was originated, the herbal cigarette was its main topic. Someone who kept the joint in their mouth, hanging from their lip like Humphrey Bogart (aka Bogey), would be bogarting the joint. Who remembers the song lyric "Don't bogart that joint, m' friend. Pass it over to me again"?

There's always a guy who takes the fall for a whole group; a fall guy. This term comes from American wrestling matches which were arranged in advance. The fall guy was the wrestler who agreed to lose by allowing himself to be thrown down and take a fall.

When skydivers and paratroopers jump out of that perfectly good airplane, they are known to shout Geronimo! Why invoke the name of an Apache chief when flinging oneself out of the plane? Warriors have always shouted when entering battle, and paratroopers are no different. The practice of yelling Geronimo apparently originated at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. There, while being chased by cavalry, Geronimo and his horse leapt down a bluff into a river. The legend continues that in the midst of this jump to freedom he gave out the bloodcurdling cry of Geronimo-o-o! Hence the practice adopted by the paratroopers of Fort Sill and it spread to Forts Bragg and Campbell.

Many, many times in the past decade I (and probably most of you) felt like we were going to hell in a handbasket. There are one or two theories as to why handbasket was chosen as the preferred vehicle in which to be conveyed to hell. Items put in a handbasket are moved without resistance and someone being taken off directly and without choice is in the same situation. But there is no real significance to handbasket apart from the alliteration. It just sounds good. This view is backed-up by the existence of similar earlier phrases, whichdon't have the same catchiness, and have now disappeared; hell in a basket and hell in a wheelbarrow. Or maybe going to hell in a Mission Accomplished banner. See? Doesn't have as nice a ring to it....

Being off course is often referred to as being off beam, while being on course is on the beam. The beam refers to a landing beacon for aircraft. Being on it would mean one was headed fro a safe landing. Those of us who have read Stephen King's Dark Tower series have a whole other idea of a beam. To us, on the beam means on the correct path to the Tower. Kind of the same thing, I suppose; either way, your on the right path.

There are many, many more but that's all I have time for tonight. I intend to do one on animal phrases (dog-tired, hung like a... well, maybe not that) and one on body language (thumb your nose, no bones about it) down the road. Meanwhile, please share your favorite idiom, phrase, etc. and if you know the origin, please include it. If not, I bet someone else here will know it.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to The Way The Wind Blows on Sun Feb 14, 2010 at 05:03 PM PST.

Also republished by Cranky Grammarians.


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