Tag Archives: word play
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
Tis Sunday again, and while this Sunday was almost busier than last Sunday, I can’t let two slide! And since I have an interview tomorrow (please cross your fingers and toes–and your eyes when you aren’t driving–for me!) I decided to go with medical clichés. I was particularly intrigued by “a man of my kidney” and had to include it. It is actually the most medically based phrase in the bunch. Some of these are a real stretch, their only qualification being that they do in fact include a body part.
While some of these are familar, I was tickled by the histories of several of the cliches. I definitely was not expecting cannibals when I started this subject. 😉
to have one’s heart in one’s shoes: while this cliché has come to mean mere disappointment, it originally meant to feel extreme fear. The first recorded writing of this was in the 15th century, by a humorist that wrote that “his heart fell down into his toe.”
to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve: this well-known cliche means to show emotions openly. While Shakespeare used this phrase rather a lot, in Othello as well as Love’s Labor’s Lost, he was simply adapting a well-known phrase that was popular in his time.
to have cold feet: to lose one’s nerve. This phrase was born in America, most likely in the 1890s. It has a most amusing back story:
“Some wife, hearing a noise during the night, may have aroused her worthy but timorous husband to investigate the source. He, poor wight, may have said that his feet were too cold–meaning, literally that his feet were so cold and the floor so icy that he couldn’t even chase a mouse. “Ya-a-ah,” she may have retorted, “you and your cold feet!” And, if she were like some wives, she lost no time in passing he word around among all his friends that “Ed had such cold feet last night he couldn’t even get out of bed for fear a mouse would bite him”*
a man of my kidney: a person whose temperament and thoughts were similar to the speaker. We tend to use “a person after my own heart” in more modern use. However, when the original phrase came into use during the Middle ages, common medical thought was based on the four “Humours.” These included phlegm, blood, black bile, and bilious. In this arrangement, the kidney was thought to be the seat of the emotions.
to sweat blood: to perform such arduous work it almost seems like one sweat is blood. This is an allusion to Jesus on the Mount of Olives:
“And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”*
Around the 17oos the phrase became more common and the religious aspect was not thought of as much. In later years, the phrase became synonymous with “pouring my blood, sweat and tears” into an effort.
to stab in the back: this is used as a figurative way to say one delivered a cowardly blow “in the back,” and generally the blow is rendered by someone we thought friendly to us. The original meaning, however, was much more exact. It goes back to a time when footpads roamed the streets. A footpad, keeping the blade hidden under his cape, would pass a victim and then quickly stab them in the back, taking the purse and running as the hapless victim fell.
to make one’s mouth water: to anticipate something greatly. This one was quite literal, and likely goes back to the first time man roasted a beast over a fire. However, it did not enter the written record until 1555 in England, and was first mentioned in reference to cannibals. Historian Richard Eden wrote:
“These craftie foxes…..espying their enemies afarre of, beganne to swalowe theyr spettle as their mouthes watered for greediness of theyr pray.”*
* all my definitions and quotes this week came from A Hog on Ice, by Charles Funk
A prompt from our Daily Post here at WordPress (thanks to Kim for the challenge):
You have 20 minutes to write a post that includes the words mailbox, bluejay, plate, syrup, and ink. And one more detail… the story must include a dog named Bob
Bob licked his leg. After knocking the plate off the table and getting the gooey syrup everywhere, he needed a little cleaning up. His ears perked as he heard his human thumping down the stairs. Good! Maybe she had more syrup for him. He did like the sweetness.
“BOB! What have you done?” his human howled. “I go upstairs for one minute and look! Bad dog, bad bad dog!”
Bob slunk out of the room as she picked up the pieces of the plate. Geesh. She gets so upset by such little things. Humans are so temperamental, Bob thought. Just five minutes ago she loved me.
Bob decided to go out his door in the big human door. Maybe if he wasn’t there, she’d forget what he had done. And there was always things to sniff in the yard. Maybe that man who delivered the papers his human collected every day would be out there. He always ran when he saw Bob. Bob didn’t know why, but it sure was fun to watch.
Wagging his tail softly, Bob checked out all the corners of his yard. That dang cat from next door had cut through again. If Bob could just catch her doing it…… It was the birds, Bob knew. His human had set up feeders in the yard and the cat was hoping to catch one. As if.
Bob wandered over to the feeders, sniffing the ground. Squirrels had been by, probably to eat the seed dropped by the birds. Speaking of which–Bob turned his head to glare at the large bluejay spitting sunflower seeds at him. Bird thought he was safe up there. Maybe Bob would help that cat, just once!
His ears catching the sound of a truck, Bob bounded towards the front gate. The man with the papers was here! Bob woofed gleefully as the man dropped the paper by the mailbox. Startled, the man almost fell over as he shot back to his truck. It was petty, but Bob could be that way. Satisfied, Bob grabbed the paper and trotted back to the house. Maybe if he gave it to his human, she wouldn’t be mad anymore. Why was she mad? Bob couldn’t remember.
He dropped the paper in front of her. She gingerly picked up the paper, avoiding the wet spots.
“Oh Bob, you smeared the ink again,” she sighed before rubbing his head. “I guess that’s what I get for wanting a St Bernard. Drool and appetite!”
Laughing, she put her arms around Bob’s neck to snuggle. And everything was right in Bob’s world again.
17 minutes, not including spell check!
I have to apologize for not posting on Sunday. With the arrival of a new horse on Saturday and the land clearing we did on Sunday, I just didn’t have time to get it done. So, here we are! clichés abounding, just on a Tuesday 🙂
Spring has finally sprung in my corner of the world. We went from 40s and low 50s to 60s and 70s almost overnight. No complaints from me, I just suddenly have so much to do outside in the gardens. Today’s clichés will be rather eclectic, just whatever struck me as spring-y: weather, baby animals, etc.
April showers bring May flowers: this one may be more of a proverb than an actual cliché, but it is definitely a bit worn around the edges. The saying is a reminder that even the most unpleasant of things, in this case the heavy rains of April, can bring about enjoyable things, like an abundance of flowers in May. A lesson in patience, perhaps? The cliché can be traced back to the 1500s, and was once a stanza:
Sweet April showers
Do spring May flowers — 1557, Thomas Tusser
As fresh as a Daisy: to feel remarkably well rested and ready to take on the day. Why would a daisy be fresh? Because they close their eyes at night! In fact, the name ‘daisy’ comes from the old English daeges eage, or “day’s eye” because it only “opened its eye” by day.
In two shakes of a lamb’s tail: to be ready in just a moment, to be quick. Originally this phrase was simply “two shakes”. But then one questioned, two shakes of what? At some point in the 19th century a clever person, apparently agriculturally minded, decided to add the ‘lamb’s tail’. Everyone knew that lambs shake their tails quickly and often, and the addition has stuck to this very day.
Shrinking Violet: a shy or modest person. This cliché is British in origin, founded by gentlemen poets who, while wandering the woods, coined the phrase for the ground hugging violet, who appeared to be shrinking back from all the taller vegetation around it.
There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow; and a faint-coloured poppy; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet –Leigh Hunt, early 1800s
Act the Giddy Goat: to be foolish. This one just sounds fun, a giddy goat might be quite entertaining to have about. This particular phrase has been built upon for centuries, as ‘giddy’ has been applied to all sorts of creatures in reference to them being foolish or silly. As one can see from this British comic paper’s bit of verse:
Fanny Robinson was flighty; she played the giddy ox – I mean, heifer. –Ally Slopers Half Holiday, 1892
And, finally, while we are on animals:
To have a cow: to be overly excited, upset or anxious. While most of America, and perhaps the world, know this phrase from Bart Simpson, it does in fact predate the Simpsons. The expression “have a cow” is said to have originated in the 1950s. The idea is that certain bits of unexpected or bad news might create the same agony and pain as literally giving birth to a cow. An earlier phrase from Britain, “having kittens” means basically the same thing and it seems likely that someone who thought having kittens would be too easy upgraded the saying to cows to express his agony.
Today our Writing 101 class wanted us to do a character study on a person that we perhaps have just met recently. I have decided to describe someone that has helped me during my unemployment/school search. This is a fictionalized version of her, as I don’t have any right to throw her out on the internet in full view! Also, she has been nothing but helpful, so my study might suffer from a lack of fullness, as I don’t know any of her bad habits.
Lila was a person I felt an instant connection with when we sat down to discuss my future. Perhaps it was because she is the only one I have ever met who sits like I do: one leg tucked underneath us and the other crossed, dangling, over the first leg. Maybe it was because she picked up all our papers at once, seemingly without looking; and yet when I had a question, she had remembered my name. For whatever reason, I felt comfortable with her handling my case. Her narrow face, surrounded by quirky black hair, was serious as we discussed my schooling opportunities.
Lila was quick and cheerful as we went through my financials. As she typed, I gazed around her office. It was quite clear that Lila loved Ireland, as her office is stuffed with shamrocks, leprechauns, and celtic knots. When I asked about it, she said that she had traveled there with friends and pointed out a picture tucked behind the monitor. I learned she had lost her husband, but her son (mostly) lived with her. Since he wasn’t always there, Lila had learned to do many things her husband used to do around the house.
As we talked, she played with her necklace, a large piece she wore each time I saw her.( I never did ask Lila what the story was behind it) The corners of her office not filled with celtic memorabilia had lighthouses and ocean scenes, starting with a large Kinkade picture behind her. When I left her, I was left with an impression of a person I could count on.
Anchors away: seafaring, sailor, and oceanic clichés per request!! I am always interested in where sayings come from, especially when where you think it came from is quite different as to where they actually originated. My fellow blogger (sounds like I am going to start a political speech–I promise you I won’t) Lynn lives over in the UK and thought a listing of seafaring clichés might just be cool. I agreed, especially as the British Navy was the originally largest in the world in size and length of time it operated around the world. I figured many of these clichés might have come from that Navy. Shows just how wrong I could be…..
Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning, red sky at night, sailor’s delight: the meaning is simply the meteorlogical one as stated in the cliche. If the morning skies are red, it is because clear skies over the horizon to the east permit the sun to light the undersides of moisture-bearing clouds. The saying assumes that more such clouds are coming in from the west. Conversely, in order to see red clouds in the evening, sunlight must have a clear path from the west, and therefore the prevailing westerly wind must be bringing clear skies*. The phrase is first found in the bible, and has transmuted many times since. Some of the earlier versions use shepherds instead of sailors. Shakespeare was the first to connect it to sailors:
“Like a red morn, that ever yet betoken’d wreck to the seaman – sorrow to shepherds.” —Venus & Adonis, 1593
Between the Devil and the deep blue sea: meaning in between two difficult choices. While the exact connection to the sea is hard to pin down, it would in fact be bad to fall in the deep sea or be into the Devil for any reason. There is also a version of a 1867 Sailor’s Word-Book that states: “Devil – the seam which margins the waterways on a ship’s hull”. A common punishment at sea would be keelhauling, which would be a misbehaving sailor hung from a line and scraped along the hull from one end of ship to the other. That would definitely be between the devil and the deep blue sea.
High and dry: stranded. An easy one to learn the origin of, this cliché was first used an a newspaper in 1796 to describe a ship resting fully on sand. Taken to mean a ship that has not only beached out of water, but expected to remain that way.
Give a wide berth to: to avoid, normally avoidance of a specific person. “Berth” was introduced in the English language early in the 1600s. It was a nautical term meaning enough roomway on the ship to work. To give a wide berth was to avoid, or keep well away from.
Pour oil on troubled waters: something offered for easing a troubled condition. As early as the first century A.D. it was known that oil poured upon a stormy sea would quiet the waves, as recorded by both Pliny and Plutarch. Five hundred years later Irish seamen were given holy oil to calm the seas, and Benjamin Franklin mentions it in 1774. During the height of the whale fishing industry, it became a common scientific fact that was often used; especially as the whaling ships had large quantities on hand.
Loose Cannon: our favorite phrase to describe oh, so, many movie and tv cops! Out of control, unpredictable. And, of course, on ships that regularly carried heavy cannon on rough seas, nothing could be quite so dangerous as a heavy object on wheels loose on a smooth ship’s deck. The first use of this particular phrase was by Victor Hugo in Ninety Three (1874):
“The carronade, hurled forward by the pitching, dashed into this knot of men, and crushed four at the first blow; then, flung back and shot out anew by the rolling, it cut in two a fifth poor fellow… The enormous cannon was left alone. She was given up to herself. She was her own mistress, and mistress of the vessel. She could do what she willed with both.”**
Panic Stations: in a situation requiring high alert. British naval ships had several ways to call the sailors to alert, one of which was “action stations.” Perhaps just because it sounded close to ‘action’ were panic stations so named. It was , however, the last station called before abandoning ship.
And so I was able to close with an actual British cliche!
Time to check in on some of my grammar list reads. I have not made as much progress as I would like to be, but at least I am inching along.
My first book was A Hog on Ice, & Other Curious Expressions by Charles Earle Funk. You may recognize the name Funk,as Charles was indeed editor-in-chief of the Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary. He wrote six or so more books on word and phrase origins, including Heavens to Betsy, Horsefeathers (always a favorite saying of mine) and Thereby Hangs a Tale. While I have not read this book cover to cover, I have used it several times for my Cliche Sundays. And when bored, it is always fun to flip it open and see what is on the first page you come to! An excellent reference book.
In the middle this week I have the Portable Curmudgeon by Jon Winokur. This is a fantastic book Jon compiled of, as the cover says, world-class grouches. Between 1986 to 21011, many books on writing carry Jon Winokur’s name. The cover also says that he has been in a bad mood since 1971, which perhaps explains this book 😉 The book is arranged alphabetically, by the quote type. So if you need a curmudgeonly quote on dogs, turn to page 87 and see what Samual Butler, Andy Rooney, Mark Twain and Charles Lamb have to say. On dog owners, Aldous Huxley said: “to his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.” I knew I loved my dogs! From abortion and abstract art to youth and yuletide curmudgeons, Mr Winokur has a pithy saying from a famous curmudgeon. Again, not a straight read-through book, but fun to pick a subject and see what Charles de Gaulle or Oscar Wilde had to say about it. Additionally, he had several in-depth interview with such malcontents as Fran Lebowitz and George S Kaufman scattered through the book.
And then there is Fumblerules by William Safire. A New York Times writer, he guarded grammar ferociously for years starting in 1973 with his column “On Language”. He could be quite terse and indeed, bossy, when it came to incorrect use of language. However, his caustic wit is one of the main enjoyments of Fumblerules. Particularly as it is not aimed at anyone specifically, unless you really mess up you grammar. With section titles like “avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read” and “ixnay on colloquial stuff”, his light-hearted rules lead one through the confusing and sometimes painful rules that make up the English language. He tackles everything from adverbs to hyperbole and onomatopoeia.
I shall leave you with my favorite title of Mr Safire’s “Better to walk through the valley of the shadow of death than to string prepositional phrases”