Tag Archives: history of words

More thoughts–

–on the Bard. And his words.

I love words. I  took Latin high school simply because French and Spanish didn’t appeal at all.  I  truly enjoyed it when I realized how many words had their origin in the language. It was fascinating to see how they were transmuted through other languages and time.

While I will butcher the pronunciation of many words, I do tend to know a lot of them to butcher.  My knowledge comes from books, so I didn’t hear them. And,apparently, I missed the day in school when they showed what all those little pronunciation  symbols mean.   I learned a lot of meanings  from inferring the definition from the text, and others I asked. Just be a twelve-year-old girl and ask your dad what “phallic” means.

What was I reading at twelve that used that word, you ask? Well, I read a lot of things I wasn’t supposed to. My mom told me when I was ten that I could read Jaws when I was sixteen when I expressed interest in it.Or, more accurately, that I couldn’t read it until I was sixteen.  Of course, I promptly read it two weeks later. It was my parents fault.

I failed second grade due to my reading ability. They spent that summer force feeding me books and instilled a life long passion in me. I read quickly and, often, books no one expected me to be reading.

I do believe that I was the only 8th grader to take Shakespeare’s Complete Works out of the school library.

I may not have understood all the plays, his language being a bit complicated for me. But I did like them. Especially a Midsummer’s Night Dream. Fairies, mischievous sprites and romance–what was there not to love?  I am a much bigger fan of his comedies than his tragedies. But that probably has more to do with my personality than his writing.

I think I most enjoyed the words he used. As a teenager I frequently used words that were a bit old for me–or, at least, the century I was in.  The history of words is fascinating; as is the way that some catch our attention and live forever while some fade quickly. For all the difficulty people have deciphering Shakespeare, it is astonishing the amount of phrases we still use.

                                                                                                                                   Who hasn’t used this one??



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Cliche Sunday

The first day of Spring! Of course, what else could we do besides spring like cliches? Actual spring cliches being few and far between, I picked those that make me feel like the season.

break the ice: to start a conversation or project. Once upon a time, small towns on rivers were locked by the ice in the winter time.   Sturdy little ships were needed to come up the river and break the ice so larger ships could come up with supplies and business opportunities. Every townsman knew that to get goods to market and increase business, you first had to break the ice.

til the cows come home: to stay in bed late. Most people seem to think that this is a late night occurrance, and I suppose that if one stayed out until the cows actually came home, then one would be out all night and that would be a late night indeed.  But this country saying is from cows lineing up in the morning at the gate hoping to be milked. This phrase dates back to the 1600s, and if one was indeed in bed until the cows came home, one’s neighbors would be very disapproving.

to put one through a course of sprouts: to put one through a severe and  disciplined course of instruction, or a grueling test at the end of such.  Constructed in America, the actual origin and date of this cliche is not known. Being a course of instruction, “sprouts ” could refer to children. The cliche isn’t found much before 1870s.

to sow one’s wild oats: to behave foolishly at a young age, to get it out of one’s system. Wild oats (Avena fatua), growing unchecked through Europe, is a weed and very difficult to get rid of once it spreads. Thus one would be very foolish to plant it on purpose. The phrase has been around for over 400 hundred years:

    ” that wilfull and unruly age, which lacketh rypenes and discretion, and (as wee saye) hath not sowed all theyr wyeld Oates”*

sub rosa or under the rose: “strict privacy, utter confidence and absolute secrecy”* A very old cliche that comes down from the Greeks. Once they saw an image of the Egyptian god Horus, seated under a rose with his finger to his lips, they believed that he was the god of silence. Unfortunately, they completely misinterpreted the picture, as it was in reality a lotus and the infant god was merely sucking on a finger. However, this story faxcinated the Greedks and survived, leading to the cliche “under the rose.”

*A Hog on Ice & other curiouse sexpressions, Charles Earle Funk

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Lost in Cliches

So, what exactly would be considered a cliché? How is it different from using slang?

cliché: A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.


slang: A kind of language occurring chiefly in casual and playful speech, made up typically of coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in place of standard terms for added raciness, humor, irreverence, or other effect.


Phrases fall in and out of our vocabulary constantly.  Whazzzup? Wicked. Fab. Delish.  Colder than a witch’s tit in a snowbank ( I never understood why it had to be a witch). Duh. Gotta bounce.

Are all of these considered cliché? Or only certain  ones?Are they slang–can they be both? And how do we know? It does seem that slang is playful, while cliches are tired and sad.  Is length of time that the phrase is used, or the general overuse? Can a cliché from the 1800s be used in 2015 and no longer be considered cliché because it seems fresh again? Plus, clichés can be regional. Maybe you don’t worry about a witch’s breasts in Fl or Ca. Maybe they are hot there–hotter than a witch’s tit in lava?

 I don’t know the answers to these questions. If you do, please let me know!


Meanwhile, after getting the hairy eyeball (slang or cliché?) from the dogs after I highlighted horses last week, I decided to go with a canine edition this week.

Never Pet a Burning Dog: if something looks dangerous, don’t ignore the danger and dive right in. Finding the origin on this one was difficult. Many people thought it came from HBO’s Generation Kill, as it was used in an episode–The Burning Dog. But it’s older than that, definitely as far back as the 1970s. It does seem to be a military phrase and most used within a military setting.

My Dogs are Barking: my feet are tired. We have all heard this one, right? Apparently it got it’s start in England, especially in the Cockney region. Using Cockney grammar it should read, “Me dogs is barking.” In the early 1900’s Cockney slang rhymed until the word you used was exceedingly difficult to figure out how it related to the word you meant.  So, if your feet were ‘barking mad’, barking mad=bad in rhyming slang. Thus, ‘My feet are barking (mad) = ‘My feet are bad’. Just don’t ask me why your feet were barking mad in the first place.

To Go to the Dogs: to become run down, to lose one’s former quality. This one I found on one lovely website, so I didn’t have to piece it together. I thought it was an interesting origin story too:

The origin of this expression is believed to be in ancient China where dogs, by tradition, were not permitted within the walls of cities. Consequently, stray dogs roamed the areas outside the city walls and lived off the rubbish thrown out of the city by its inhabitants. Criminals and social outcast were often expelled from cities and were sent to live among the rubbish – and the dogs. Such people were said to have “gone to the dogs”, both literally in that that was where they were now to be found, and metaphorically in the sense that their lives had taken a distinct turn for the worse.*

You Lie Like a Dog: you lie consistently and constantly. It’s considered a pun, using the two meanings of lie. One, to lay down, which we all know our puppies like to do. Endlessly, in the sun. Two, to tell an untruth. Which I don’t think dogs would ever do. Sadly, I couldn’t find any history on this. I don’t know where it came from or when. I may have to revisit this one.

I think it is odd that most of these canine clichés seem negative.  Even others, like lay down with dogs and rise up with fleas, let sleeping dogs lie, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, are peculiarly  unpleasant. And yet dogs are known as man’s best friend. They are fuzzy and loyal and loving. Why the bad rap? Seems a bit unfair to me!

That puppy isn’t going anywhere without his person!



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Cliche Sunday: Equine Edition

As a horse lover, I was inspired to delve into horse clichés this week.

Let’s start with “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”.  Charby never brings me any gifts, so I wondered about that one. Apparently, as a horse ages the teeth begin to project further forward each year and so the age can be estimated by checking how prominent the teeth are. So, when given a present, be grateful for it and do not look for more by examining it to determine the value.  The only thing Charby does give me (aside from a dirty stall) is affection. I would think that is highly valuable.

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Cliche, anyone?

As I set up my blog, I tried to figure out what I would do for posts and pages and fun stuff.   I can’t just play it by ear (cliché alert), I have a deep-seated need for organization and lists. One thing I thought would be fun would be “Cliche Sunday”. So many clichés! As writers we are always trying to avoid them.

But do we know where they come from? I mean, sure, we all know where

 “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

came from. But how about

 “tail between his legs”                “a face like a bulldog chewing on a wasp” ?                                                                    “a half-baked idea”  

And, has anyone heard the bulldog/wasp cliché in the last decade? When does a cliché stop being overused and become acceptable as a new fresh way to express oneself? Do we get to decide for ourselves? I kinda love a face like a bulldog chewing on a wasp. Extremely expressive.

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