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Cliche Stories

John clutched his mom’s hand as they walked down the long hallway to Melly’s room. He didn’t want to go in there again.

Melly lay there, hooked up to machines that buzzed and beeped quietly. His vibrant sister pale and thin, laying like a shadow of herself. John used to get so mad at Melly, always babbling on about something. But now he’d love to hear her voice again. Maybe that would make his mom stop crying at night. He dragged his feet as they got closer to the room.

The adults were all so quiet, putting on a good face, like he couldn’t tell. John wasn’t sure if it was for him or for themselves. They paced from the bed to the window, wandering down the hall for coffee and back again, talking about nothing in low voices. As if noise would bother Melly.

John snorted. She might wake up just to join in, if they said anything interesting enough.

The door opened and John’s grandmother came out, a huge smile on her face. She grasped her daughter’s hand and quickly drew them both into the hospital room. It was filled with noise and people.

John heard Melly’s voice, scratchy, low, but undeniably her voice as she importantly told her nurse about her dolls, including where and when she got each one, as well as where it fell in the hierarchy of her room.

John’s mom stared from Melly to her mother, who hugged her jubilantly.

“She woke up half an hour ago,” Grandmeme said, “hasn’t shut up since. Just like normal.”

“Yeah, never could get a word in edgeways,” Uncle George said. “We knew for sure she was feeling better!”

John smiled, listening as Melly moved on to telling the nurse about her stuffed animals.



get a word in edgeways: not being able to join a conversation as one person is speaking continously.  You may have also heard this cliche as “get a word in edgewise,” as the words were used interchangably. Either meant to proceed with an edge first, and were used to describe a way to work through a crowd, seeking out the gaps to slide through sideways. Edging forward was first used in sailing terms, to describe tacking through the ocean waters:

After many tempests and foule weather, about the foureteenth of March we were in thirteene degrees and an halfe of Northerly latitude, where we descried a ship at hull; it being but a faire gale of wind, we edged towards her to see what she was.
                         Captain John Smith, The generall historie of Virginia, New-England and the Summer Isles, 1624

While this term began to be used to refer to conversations in 1683; it was first used in print in 1821, in a one act play:

Sir F. (Aside.) Curse me, if I can get a word in edgeways!
                               Twelve precisely! or, A night at Dover


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Cliche Fiction

“So, here’s the deal,” Fred said, “I’m gonna be a’betting, so I need  you to aid me.”

“Huh?” Greg responded, returning his attention to Fred.

He had been looking around the aged casino. What a grand old dame she must have been, he thought, looking past the faded chairs lining  the slot machines. The drapes were a fine fabric, the rugs had once been plush and the chandeliers were fine glass. Dusty, but glittering underneath.

“Just like that old saying,” Fred repeated. “I’m gonna be abetting over at that table, and I need you to aid me. Aid and abet, you know.”

“That’s not…”Greg started to say before shaking his head.  What had Pete got him into? “What do you need me to do?”

“I got my thing,” Fred said smugly.  “I just need your handsome face to keep that dealer girl over there from paying attention to me while I do it.”

Greg looked over at the tall dealer with the glossy dark hair. Men must be hitting on her all the time, he thought. Still,  Greg knew that girls liked him and he figured he could keep her busy, at least long enough for Fred to do his “thing.”

Well, damn, Greg thought with a dawning smile, that is aiding and abetting!!


aid and abet: to encourage and help, particularly in the case of nefarious or illegal activities.  Anyone that has watched any cop show in the last twenty years (or more) knows this phrase. Cops are always threatening people with being charged with “aiding and abetting” if people don’t give up the suspects, or even sometimes, actually charging people with it.  The phrase dates from the second half of the 18th century. The original meaning of abet was “to cause to bite,” but by then the word had lost that particular meaning and was more similar to the current meaning of encourage. The previous meaning had come from the practice of bear abetting, or bear baiting. Bear baiting was a popular sixteenth century entertainment where bears were tethered in “bear gardens” and trained dogs set loose to tear them apart. (I know, I know, don’t even get me started. I am sure the German “beer gardens” are far more entertaining. And I don’t like beer.)
The history of “abet” came from several countries, but does make sense of the “bear abetting” meaning:

1275-1325; Middle English abette (whence Old French abeter, unless perhaps the latter, of Germanic orig., be the source for the ME),
 OldEnglish *ābǣtan to hound on, equivalent to ā- a-3bǣtan to bait, akin to bite*


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Cliche Sunday

And, on to the V’s! Of course, V is a bit rare, so it will be interesting to see just how many clichés can be found starting V. The site I use actually stuck U and V together, like many file sets do. And the book I use only has one, and it doesn’t even truly start with V– “Violin, to play second.” I think I will skip that one 🙂

veg out: to relax, or, as Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman, to lay like broccoli.  The phrase did come from the 1990s, and while popular in London literary circles during that decade, the earliest version of it can be found in Pretty Woman. The origin is from the idea of people with limited brain capacity as vegetables, lying in bed and unable to do move. Couch Potato has a similar origin.

vicious circle: a self-perpetuating cycle that has no improvement as it circles back to the beginning of the process. This was used as logicians in the 1800s originally as a method of describing a fake philosophies:

A depends on B
B depends on C
C depends on A

The term was picked up for use in the mid 1800s by medical practitioners, and was found first in figurative form in 1892:

The whole situation works in a kind of inevitable rotary way – in what would be called a vicious circle.
                                            Henry James’ Notebooks

vanish into thin air: to disappear, whether it be a person, a wallet, or just that thing you so desperately need to find and were sure you left on the kitchen table. This one is mostly likely a a variation of the phrase Shakespeare used in Othello:

Then put up your pipes in your bag, for I’ll away. Go; vanish into air; away!

 verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things: literal meaning, and quite timely if you actually listen to our politicians. This quote is attributed to Dan Qualye, President Bush (Sr)’s vice president, who is otherwise best known for his youth and inability to spell the plural of potato. While many politicians do seem to talk in a vicious circle, an excellent demonstration of this phrase is given by Donald Rumsfield:

                      Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

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Cliche Sunday

Here we are again, on a lovely Sunday night. Once more I had a busy weekend. I guess that is just par for the course at this point. Hmmm, I didn’t do that one when I did the “Ps.” Guess I can’t get them all! I do seem to be adjusting to this hectic weekend pace, I guess we can get used to anything 🙂

So on to “S.”

safe as houses: to be completely safe and secure.  I have always wondered about this one. I mean, I do feel safe in a house during, say,  a thunderstorm; but still an odd saying overall. This particular phrase came from our friends in Britain, and from  a time period when safe was more commonly used to mean certainty rather than our current usage, with safe meaning security.  When picking a simile, one does tend to be over the top; so large and conspicuous houses were an easy fit.

No uncertainty here, guv’nor,” answered one of his captors. “You’re booked, safe as houses.
                                James Friswell, Out & About, 1860

one sandwich short of a picnic: an amusing way to indicate that someone is not all that smart. There are quite a few phrases that use ‘X is short of Y,’

with the meaning that someone is not clever. I rather like this one, however, it just sounds funny. It also comes from across the pond, with the first noted usage in 1987 in  BBC’s Lenny Henry Christmas Special.

scarper: to depart hurriedly. I have read this one before, where a character would scarper off, but I didn’t think it would be a cliché, as it was one word versus an actual phrase. I do seem to be picking ones for my own enjoyment today, as I also find the idea of anyone scarpering completely hilarious 🙂 The word comes from Italian word ‘scappare’, meaning to escape.

He must hook it before ‘day-light does appear’, and then scarper by the back door.
                                                         Swell’s Night Guide, 1846

season of mists and mellow fruits: a lovely, wordy way of saying autumn. Once more, this comes from Britain, in the 1820s. British poet John Keats used the phrase:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
To Autumn, 1820

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Cliche Sunday

Ok, so I lied last week. I never got around to putting out last week’s clichés. Besides the utter excitement of the Patriots remembering suddenly that they were in a Super Bowl and kicking butt, I have no real excuse.

But I am here for the “J’s”. I am actually quite curious to see what I can find, as phrases starting with J do not immediately leap to my mind.

jack palancing: dancing. Now, I had to pick this one because of the actor Jack Palance. I ran across him first in Tango and Cash as the bad guy. My mother says I missed out on his heyday as bad guys, that he used to drip menace just by breathing. So imagine my surprise to find that Jack Palancing actually means dancing. I had something more vicious in mind. I don’t actually see any connection to him originally, as this phrase was part of Irish “rhyming” slang, where as long as it rhymed it needed no other connection to what the phrase indicated. I do have a theory, however, that the meaning of the phrase may be why Jack picked that name. He was born Volodymyr Palahniuk in Pennsylvania. After a number of stage names, he settled on Jack Palance. And proceeded to dance through many westerns as ultimate evil.

jack in the box: the toy that many of us are familiar with, consisting of a box with a doll inside the pops out on a coiled spring when the box opens. As a toy, one could consider a jack in the box innocent fun. As long as one does not fear clowns of course–coulrophobic, that is. The phrase, however, far predates the actual toy and was not terribly complementary in origin.

[There are] railyng bils against the Lords supper, terming it Jack of the boxe, the sacrament of the halter, round Robin, with like unsemely termes.
         John Foxe’s Actes & Monuments, 1563

It was also used as a term to mean a swindler in the sixteenth century, as well as fireworks in the early seventeenth century. It was in 1702 that the meaning that we are familiar with was first used:

Up started every one in his seat, like a Jack in a box…
             Infernal Wanderer

Eventually, someone figured out how to make the phrase into a toy.

the jury is still out: being undecided, particularly if more information is needed. I picked this one because, although it was a bit before my time, this phrase was used often in my parents house. It was a bit before their time as well, as the original jury was in 1850. It was part of a famous trial of Asa Gardiner, a public official accused of ” Misuse and abuse of official power; Neglect of duty; Unfitness for office; Wrongful acts.”  The New York Daily Times printed the headline:
    The [Gardiner Trial] Jury are still out, with no prospect of immediate agreement.

The phrase caught on, and is still popular today.

jump the gun: to start something before preparations are done. Another phrase I heard a lot growing up. Who knew my family was so into phrases starting with J? This phrase became popular in the early twentieth century.  Previous incarnations were “jump ship” and “jump a claim.” The gun became part of the phrase when starter pistols were used for races on tracks, and had quite literal meaning:

False starts were rarely penalized, the pistol generally followed immediately on the signal “Get set!” and so shiftless were the starters and officials that “beating the pistol” was one of the tricks which less sportsmanlike runners constantly practised.
                                      Rowing and Track Athletics, 1905


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Cliche Sunday

Perfect for ‘C’liches, today is ‘C’!  Somehow my ‘C’ clichés turned into literary clichés as well; but, as a writer, I find I can’t help myself. At least I showed a bit of:

common sense: good, practical thinking. Common Sense was written in 1776 by Thomas Paine. Although many think Paine was an American, he actually was raised in Britain, and still lived there when he penned Common Sense. The phamlet became famous as it listed rational reasons for America to become independent of Britain. The phrase predates Paine, used in the fourteenth century to mean an actual sense, such as sight or sound. It represented an internal sense, rather like what we now call heart. By the sixteenth century it had morphed into what we now think of it, the plain wisdom that everyone possesse.* Of course, by the eighteenth century, common sense was regarded as anything but common.


chip off the old block: to say a child has the same characteristics as a parent. The original saying, “a chip off the same block,” was a bit more respectful of the parent involved. This one is not hard to see where it came from, a chip off a marble block will indeed have the same characteristics as the larger original. The cliché itself is from the 1600s, and used by Bishop Robert Sanderson in his sermons.


Canterbury pace: to go the pace of mounted pilgrims. I don’t know that I would call this one an actual cliché, as I have never heard it before. It it has a strong literary background, so it needs to be included 🙂 A pilgrimage is, by necessity, a long arduous journey, and accomplished a  properly sedate pace. One of the most famous stories about pilgrims, of course, is Canterbury Tales, Chaucer. The first mention of a ‘Canterbury pace’   is by a Church of England clergyman:

Have I practic’d my Reines [runs], my Carree’res [careers – full gallops], my Pranckers [prancings], my Ambles, my false Trotts, my smooth Ambles, and Canterbury Paces.
      William Sampson’s Vow Breaker,  1636

Catch 22: a situation where an attempt to solve the situation makes the situation impossible to solve. I figured as long we were on a literary bent, we might as well include a cliché from Joseph Heller’s marvelous novel of the same name.  A catch 22 is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ problem, although it is often used for issues that are more easily solved than the original:

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. “Is Orr crazy?”
“He sure is,” Doc Daneeka said.
“Can you ground him?”
“I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.”
“Then why doesn’t he ask you to?”
“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
“That’s all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”


cold comfort: slight encouragement after a harsh reverse. Cold Comfort has roots in the fifteenth century. The phrase also has a literary history, being used in the sixteenth century by both Chaucer and Shakespeare:

Am I but three inches? why, thy horn is a foot; and
so long am I at the least. But wilt thou make a
fire, or shall I complain on thee to our mistress,
whose hand, she being now at hand, thou shalt soon
feel, to thy cold comfort, for being slow in thy hot office?
           The Taming of the Shrew, 1596


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Cliche Sunday

I thought this week that we could do some older  phrases. I was amazed at how long “swan song” (pre-100 AD) has lasted in our vocabulary, so let’s look at some  more outdated clichés that have stuck around for a while.It must be the flair that made them live in our imagination for so long.

stuff and nonsense: telling a person they were being ridiculous. This phrase is only 175 years old, being first found in written form in 1827, but I have always liked it. It was first used by a politician, who said “”He had at once to declare, that all notions of concerting and of dictating to the King in the exercise of his prerogative, was merestuff and nonsense“* in a parliamentary debate in England.   It is  lovely way of telling someone they have no idea, and in this day and age, they would probably just go “huh?”!

rub the wrong way: to be insensitive to how someone is feeling, especially during a conversation. This is often thought of as being from rubbing a cat’s (or other animal)  fur the wrong way,resulting in one peeved feline. However, it really dates back to colonial times. Servants used to wet-rub and then dry- rub the wide wood plank floors, and if they did it against the grain the result was streaky and messy. Employers of these servants were peeved as the feline would have been, especially if it was not fixed before company came. They then blamed the servants, saying they “rubbed it the wrong way.”

blue jeans: pants traditionally made of a blue denim cloth. Although these days “jeans” can be made of almost any color and finish, jeans became popular earlier than most of us imagine. In 1495, King Henry VIII of England made a contribution to history that should remain forever: he bought 262 bolts of a heavy cloth termed “jean.” It was long wearing and durable, and remained its original color for many years until someone decided to dye it blue. While it would take a bit longer for it become fashionable for men and women, jeans have lasted for over 600 years!

hocus-pocus: vaguely magical words used many acts. This phrase is also much older than I would have thought, dating back to middle ages. Jugglers used it, mangling words from the Church to make the act sound important. They probably got the idea from commoners, who also mangled the words, having ho idea what the Latin words from Mass really meant:

In the Middle Ages, most people were illiterate and certainly didn’t understand Latin, the language of the Catholic mass.  During the Eucharist in the mass, the priest would turn away from the congregation and look at the cross, making his words hard to hear and/or understand.  When he raised the host (bread), he uttered the words “Hoc est corpus mei……”, or “This is my body….”, in Latin.  The congregation didn’t understand the meaning of the words, but they did know that, somehow through some magic, these words turned the bread into the actual body of Christ, the fantastic magical event of transubstantiation.  So, words that sounded like “hocus pocus” to the illiterate and uneducated masses would enable a magical and miraculous event to transpire, and, presumably, these words were a facilitator or enabler of a magical act or event. **

green-eyed monster: to be jealous. Another famous phrase started by Shakespeare. In Othello, Act III, Shakespeare used a cat’s green eyes to mean jealousy. He also used the actual cliché, “green-eyed monster,” in the play.





*Word Ancestry

**Words, Phrases, or Sayings

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