As I am still struggling with deciding on a theme, today I thought I would go back to “A Hog on Ice.” The book, containing the origins of “pungent and colorful phrases,” has many phrases that aren’t necessarily cliché, but are quite unique. I thought I would pick a few of the less known for our post today.
right as a trivet: perfectly stable. A trivet is a three-legged stool, such as a milking stool. The idea is that the tripod legs will stand securely on any surface, making it very stable. This phrase was used by Charles Dickens in 1837, and Thomas Hood in 1835, indications that is was quite common to use that phrase in the early 1800s. These days the phrase “right as rain” is more common; and, honestly, much less understandable!
to cook one’s goose: to frustrate one’s aims, to ruin a scheme. This phrase is from the mid-1800s, and refers to a period in England when the Catholic Church was attempting to re-establish the hierarchy by the appointment of an English Cardinal, Nicholas Wiseman. A rhyme, expressing the antipathy in some quarters for this action, ran through the country. In part, the rhyme was:
If they come here we’ll cook their goose,
The Pope and Cardinal Wiseman
I particularly enjoy the presumable origin of this phrase, which was the fairy tale, The Goose that laid the Golden Egg. The couple in their greed killed the goose to get the golden eggs inside of her, but the unlaid eggs were not golden. All they had at that point was a dead goose, which in all likelihood they cooked and ate, as they could do nothing else!
to teach one’s grandmother to suck eggs: to offer needless assistance, to offer advice to an expert. This is an old phrase, well over 200 years old, and has mutated from an even older phrase that was simply absurd enough to appeal to popular fancy. The oldest written variation is from Apophthegmes, 1542:
A swnyne to teache Minerua, as a prourbe, for which we saie in
Englyshe to teache our dame to spynne
to shoot the bull: ‘to talk wisely and freely upon subjects about which one knows little’.* A uniquely American slang, that in more modern times we have translated to saying simply “bullshit”–calling the person out on the falseness of the speech. The origin of this phrase was developed during “bull sessions” in the early 20th century; where young men would gather to “air his knowledge or offer his opinions upon any subject toward which the conversation, often smutty, veers.”*
to come out at the little end of the horn: to fail at a goal or project, especially one that a person bragged was sure to have exceedingly large returns. This is quite an old phrase, going back at least 300 years and with its roots in a ballad (which seems not to have survived). The ballad, we learn by following its trail through literature that mentions it, refers to a young man who received a large fortune and managed it most unwisely by trusting a friend. The moral points to the ease with money can be lent, like entering the mouth of a horn, but said lender can find himself squeezed when the lendee does not fulfill the promises made.
the prodigal fool the ballad speaks of, that was squeezed through a horn
–John Fletcher, A Wife for a Month, 1625
*A Hog on Ice, Charles Funk, 1948