Cliches Sunday


Tis a rainy day out there, and our afternoon was interrupted by tree coming down on the Cover-it we call a hay barn. I pretty much didn’t do anything–other than clean up the tree remnants and fix the horse line that came down in the blinding rain–at all today. Except TV. I did watch a lot of TV. And now I realize that perhaps I should have been spending my day writing. Ah well.

What shall we do our last-minute clichés on today? As days like today always make me rather munchy, I think we could do food clichés. Let’s give it a whirl. WIne and food cliches–this can only end with me eating more 😉

keep the pot boiling: to provide a livelihood. The ancients said they must keep the pot boiling, which translated to having something edible within the pot to eat. Therefore they must supply meat or vegetable to be boiled in said pot. This also gave rise to the phrase “to go to pot,” which meant that something was cut up and prepared, thus going to pot was to disintegrate. I know some people might have thought “to go to pot” was an biased expression of what happens to those who tend to indulge in pot (otherwise known as marijuana).  The phrase, however, is much older than we might have thought.

a fig for your opinion/not worth a fig: expressions of contempt. These phrases may go back as far as ancient Greece, a region where figs were so plentiful as to have almost no value. There is another theory, that it may have come from early Italy instead, where they had a gesture of derision called “the fig.” This gesture is still used today, involving fingers and a thumb. I will let your imagination play with that one.

to drag a red herring across a trail: to obscure the truth. Herring that has been smoked turns a red color from the process. The intention, of course, is that this herring be eaten. However, dog trainers swiftly realized the pungent scent of a smoked herring was an excellent tool to train dogs to hunt a scent. Later, criminals realized that the same scent could be quite effective in masking their own scents from police hounds tracking them. These days it is often used to describe a plot stratagem to conceal an author’s real intent. And of course we all feel very proud when we detect and  see past that “red herring.”

A bad egg: used figuratively to describe a literally bad person. One can never tell upon first sight if the egg is bad; like a human, further insight must be used. (although cracking people open is not advised)  Shakespeare used ‘egg’ to describe a young person in MacBeth ; the scene where the murderers slay the son of MacDuff:
   “What you egg! Young fry of treachery!”
Oddly, Shakespeare’s phrase, for once, did not take. The term ‘bad egg’ did not gain popularity until mid-eighteenth century. The converse, “he’s a good egg,”  came into usage in the early nineteenth century and most likely developed from British slang.

cut the mustard: to meet expectations. There seem to be a slew of differing opinions of how this particular phrase came into being. The best one seems to be:
 “There has been an association between the heat and piquancy of mustard and the zest and energy of people’s behaviour. This dates back to at least 1672, when the term ‘as keen as mustard’ is first recorded. ‘Up to mustard’ or just ‘mustard’ means up to standard in the same way as ‘up to snuff’. ‘Cutting’ has also long been used to mean ‘exhibiting’, as in the phrase ‘cutting a fine figure’. Unless some actual evidence is found for the other proposed explanations, the derivation of ‘cutting the mustard’ as an alternative way of saying ‘exhibiting one’s high standards’ is by far the most likely.”*

jam tomorrow: to have something pleasant to look forward to–which is unlikely to materialize. Because we all love jam, right? This phrase came from a favorite children’s story–Alice Through the Looking Glass, and What She Found There. The queen promises jam tomorrow to Alice, and explains that it is always jam tomorrow-or jam yesterday-but never jam today. An earlier British meaning of “jam” was  to mean anything exceptionally good. Carroll, of course, would have known that meaning and played upon it. The phrase “jam tomorrow” became immediately popular and stayed in the slang lexicon for quite some time.

‘I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!’ the Queen said. ‘Twopence a week, and jam every other day.’
Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, ‘I don’t want you to hire ME – and I don’t care for jam.’
‘It’s very good jam,’ said the Queen.
‘Well, I don’t want any TO-DAY, at any rate.’
‘You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,’ the Queen said. ‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.’
‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day,”‘ Alice objected.
‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’
‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’
–Alice in Wonderland




Filed under Cliche Sunday

3 responses to “Cliches Sunday

  1. I loved this! Maybe nautical next time? I’ve always been curious about a phrase my mother used when she wanted say you looked horrible, “You look like the Wreck of the Hespers.” I’m assuming the ‘Hespers’ is a ship. I may have the word wrong. It is how my mother said it, but she may be saying it wrong. It may be something she heard as a kid. And that is how these things come down to us.


  2. I think it’s The Wreck of the Hesperus, Cyn. It rang a bell, so I Googled it – it’s a poem by Longfellow about a shipwreck that goes down with all hands including the captain’s daughter. Tragic stuff.
    Loved your cliches, Sam. Didn’t know ‘keep the pot boiling’ or ‘drag a red herring’ ones – I only know ‘pot calling the kettle black’ and ‘red herring’ as in a false clue. Always nice to hear something new.
    Nautical’s a nice idea, though there are so many, you might end up doing two posts!


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