Beat Around the Bush

When someone beats around the bush they are often avoiding talking about something directly. The idiom  is used when one person wants to tell another to stop avoiding the true point of a conversation. In USA Today, the person quoted in this excerpt uses the expression to say he wants to get directly to his main point:

“Listen, there’s no beating around the bush — I’m old,” Miller cracked. “You can say it. … The guys in the locker room, the best way you can lead and be a part of it is by doing it with action, by not missing practice and getting through it when it’s tough. I can definitely help.”

The origin of this phrase is believed to be from hunting. In medieval era hunters would hire men to assist them during hunting. These hired men would help by flushing animals out from within the bushes, which they would do by whacking the brush with a wooden stick, and often shouting. The point was to make a bunch of noise in order to scare birds and other animals out from the cover of the bushes, making them easier targets for the hunters.Medium_loup
There would be a certain degree of danger that came from hitting bushes. While the more harmless creatures—birds, rabbits, squirrels, etc.—would be driven out, the more dangerous ones, such as wild boars, could also be lurking inside. Boars have sharp tusks that have the potential to cause serious harm to humans. Thus, to avoid injury from any harmful animals, it’s possible that these ‘beaters’ of the brush would strike the area around the bushes, instead of getting too close and hitting them directly. This is similar to how the idiom is used today—it refers to a person who talks about something, but instead of getting directly to the point, they speak around it.

The earliest written use of a variation of this phrase was around the year 1400, when it was used in an anonymous poem called Generydes: A Romance in Seven Line Stanzas:

Butt as it hatfi be sayde full long 1 agoo,
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take,

So next time you’re beating around a bush remember that just flat out saying the truth is likely less scary than possibly being injured by a wild boar, so just suck it up and stop beating around the bush!

Sources: [X] [X] [X]

Saved by the Bell

There are certain sayings that have become common use in everyday life that we just don’t realize the origins of. Some of them are way darker than the light or even happy connotation we may have with them.



The cast of Saved by the Bell

Saved by the Bell is an American television sitcom that aired on NBC from 1989 to 1993. The show follows a group of high school friends and their principal; primarily focusing on lighthearted comedic situations. ‘Saved by the bell’ is also a common used term for something that you say when a difficult situation ends suddenly before you have to do or say something that you do not want to. But the origin of the saying is a lot different than the friendly sitcom may suggest.


Before modern medicine and technology it was often not possible to 100% conclude someone’s death. Often times when digging up graves for relocation, the coffins were opened. Some coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside of the lid; it was then realized that people had been being buried alive. While we can’t say statistically how common this actually was, it became a widespread scare and myth. People genuinely feared the idea of being buried alive happening to them.

So an idea was introduced to prevent people from being buried alive; drill a hole in the lid of the coffin, tie a string on the wrist of the deceased and lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell on the limb of a tree or pole placed nearby. Hence, came about the term ‘saved by the bell’. If you were lucky enough to be buried in a coffin witch such contraption you could ring the bell and it would literally save your life.


A related term, the ‘Graveyard Shift’, or ‘Graveyard Watch’, is commonly used to refer to a shift of work that is during the early morning, typically midnight until 8am. Many people commiserate on their bad luck on being stuck with such a difficult shift. And while the shift itself isn’t typically considered scary (generally just unappealing) the term comes from a darker time.

Graveyards traditionally have a shady reputation in both actual practice and literature. The origins of graveyard shift involve a night watchman at a graveyard listening to make sure that individuals were not buried alive. With the aforementioned ‘saved by the bell’, once the bell was rung, someone had to be the one to dig up the undead.

photo-1485135711227-eee0b82501d2Around this time many also believed in myths of vampires, zombies, ghosts, and witches; and what better place for those monsters to hang out than a graveyard late at night. Someone on the graveyard shift also was thought to endure the night of keeping watch over the graveyard and keeping people’s dead loved ones safe from the unknown horrors that would lurk around a graveyard.

Lastly, we have the term ‘dead ringer’; now used to define  a person that looks very similar to someone else; a lookalike. But in colonial days, a ‘dead ringer’ was just that, the person who was saved by the bell. Someone that was thought to be alive but rang the bell, and saved themselves from a suffocating death.

Next time you’re saved by the bell, not having to spill a secret because the conversation ended abruptly, or if you’re unhappily working the graveyard shift, or run across someone that you swear is a dead ringer for Elvis Presley, remember the disturbing stories behind the reasons we use those idioms.

This post is apart of our 13 days of Halloween series. Checkout our other spooky posts:

  1. Washington Ghost Stories
  2. Out of Place Artifacts
  3. Henry Rathbone
  4. Charon and the Journey to Hades
  5. Post-Mortem Photography
  6. All Hallows Eve Divination Games
  7. Saved By The Bell and other Idioms
  8. Halloween Coins
  9. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. Coins Connecting You to the Spirit World
  11. Ancient Egyptian Alien Coins
  12. Superstitions Around the World
  13. A Brief History of Halloween

Two Bits, Four Bits, Six Bits, a Dollar!

One of your favorite cheers for school you might remember as “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, all for our team stand up and holler.” A lot of people aren’t sure why this is a cheer or what a ‘bit’ even is. Many may know though that “two bits” is a quarter– but why?

Turns out the phrase has its roots in the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the river of silver that flowed from the mines of Potosí to the royal coffers in Madrid.

In 1497, their Most Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella introduced a new coin into the global economy as part of a general currency reform. The peso (meaning “weight”) was a heavy silver coin that was worth eight reales. In Spanish it became known as a peso de ocho; in English it was a “piece of eight”.

The peso became a global currency: it was relatively pure silver, it was uniform in size and weight, and it had one special characteristic: it could be divided like a pie into eight reales. In English, those reales became known as “bits”. Two bits were a quarter of a peso. After the new American Congress based the weight of the American dollar on the peso in 1792, “two bits” also referred to a quarter of a dollar.


Mr. Two Bits

The well known cheer though originates with George Edmondson Jr. or “Mr. Two Bits”. After serving as a Navy fighter pilot during World War II, Edmondson settled in Tampa, Florida and worked in the insurance business. The Two Bits tradition began spontaneously in 1949, when Edmondson was attending the opening game of Florida’s football season against The Citadel, a school that he briefly attended before enlisting in the United States Navy during World War II.

The Gators had lost five of their last six games the previous year and were not expected to do any better. When the fans booed the players and the coach even before the opening kickoff, Edmondson decided to boost their morale by leading them in a cheer about adding up bits. The Gators won the game, and fans were so enthusiastic about Edmondson’s cheer that he returned the next Saturday to lead it again. Eventually, he began leaving his seat to wander throughout the stands of Florida Field, leading fans in different sections in the cheer.

Edmondson continued this pattern for the rest of the 1949 season and after, leading the Two Bits cheer at almost every Gator home game and selected road and bowl games over the next several decades. Beginning In the 1970s, he was invited to lead the entire stadium in the cheer from the field before each home game.

Edmondson was never paid for his services, and even after he was asked to lead his cheer from the field, he insisted on paying for his season tickets like any other fan. In the early 1980s, Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse offered to pay Edmondson “real well” to lead the Two Bits cheer at his hometown Bucs games. Edmondson declined the offer, saying, “What I do for the Gators is from the heart, not from the pocketbook.”

Edmondson announced his retirement from cheerleading at the end of the 1998 football season, and received a game ball from then-coach Steve Spurrier. However, he continued to occasionally lead the Two Bits cheer from his seat in the stands, and was eventually talked into once again leading the cheer from the field before each home game. He retired for good at the end of the 2008 season, and the university held another ceremony prior to the last home game against The Citadel, the same team the Gators were playing when Edmondson began the tradition 60 seasons earlier. Edmondson has not performed the cheer since his second retirement, saying at the time that “at 86 years of age, I’ve got to slow down. Nothing is forever.”

Edmondson and his wife, Jane, attended a few Gator home games in the season after his retirement, but now watch on TV from their home in Tampa. They sponsor the Mr. Two Bits Scholarship Fund, which benefits a University of Florida cheerleader every year.

Though Edmondson was never a University of Florida student, the university named him an honorary alumnus of the school in 2005, and he has claimed it as his new alma mater. He was inducted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame as an “honorary letter winner” in 1992.

Brand Spanking New

You’ve heard the phrase before… brand spanking new. This idiom is often used simply to describe things that are new. Such as “The film is 15 years old but looks close to brand spanking new” or “A brand spanking new computer souped up with all the bright shiny unnecessaries a girl could ever want.”


Horse with a brand on its neck

The word brand may remind some people of images of cowboys branding cattle on the open range.  A hot burned wooden stake has been called a ‘brand’ since at least 950 AD. ‘To brand’ means to ‘make an indelible mark of ownership’, especially with a hot stake or iron. This verb usage has been known since the Middle Ages and is clearly derived from the earlier name. But that’s not the origin of this phrase.

It is more closely accurate to say that ‘brand new’ comes from marketing jargon, where terms like ‘brand loyalty’ etc. are commonplace. A ‘brand’ in marketing terms comes from the meaning of the word as ‘a particular class of goods, as indicated by a trade mark’. A brand new product is thought to come from a “brand’s new product”.

Now how does the spanking tie in and where does it come from? Some say that whoever coined ‘brand spanking new’ did so by appropriating the imagery of ‘spick and span’, the rhyming of ‘bran’ and ‘span’ and the meaning of ‘spanking’ to produce a satisfying-sounding phrase with some appropriate associations.

What has been more universally agreed upon as wording origins though is the practice of doctors ‘spanking’ babies right after they’re born. Doctors have traditionally spanked babies immediately after delivery to start them crying, and breathing. While this is actually less of spank and more of some light tapping the idea of a ‘spank’ has stuck.

So for something to be brand spanking new it would be as new as an infant who just came out of the womb.

Raining Cats and Dogs

Earlier this week marked the first day of Winter.  For many of us this means snow and lots of of it.  For those of us in the Pacific Northwest, it seems to mean rain.  In fact, I overheard someone describe the conditions outside with the phrase “It is raining cats and dogs out there.”  The most amusing scene popped into my head as I  really thought about this phrase I had heard so many times before.


The phrase “Its raining cats and dogs” is another example of an idiom, or a group of words that have a meaning unrelated to the actual written words.  In this case the words, when said together, mean that it is raining really hard outside.

The origins of this phrase are mostly unknown.  The fist recorded use of the phrase in written word dates all the way back to 1651.  British poet Henry Vaughan described a house with a roof strong enough to endure “dogs and cats rained in shower.”

One possible theory for the origins of the this phrase comes from Greek Mythology.  Odin, the god of storms, kept with him a variety of dogs and wolves as his attendants and sailors associated them with rain.  Witches, who were known to take the shape of their cats, rode on the wind.  Perhaps, over time, cat and dogs became associated with heavy wind and rain for these reasons.


Another potential explanation comes from the Greek phrase “cata doxa”, which means contrary to belief or experience.  If it is raining harder than a person could believe, it is not that far of a stretch to see how using the phrase cata doxa to describe it could become cats and dogs over time.

One final theory, and perhaps the most unbelievable, comes from Great Britain in the 1500’s.  During this time, roofs were made of thatch, which was essentially piles of hay with no wood underneath.  Apparently, at times, small animals (cats and dogs?) would climb on the roof and bury themselves in the hay to keep warm and stay safe.  If it rained hard enough, these roofs would become very slippery and wash the animals right out from their cozy little hiding spot.  Imagine walking by a house and having pack of small pets land on your head.  You might try finding a phrase to describe the phenomenon.  Its raining cats and dogs would seem the only natural fit.


image courtesy of the French Wikipedia

Although we do not know the exact origins of the phrase “raining cats and dogs”, we do know that it has been used to describe heavy rain for quite some time.  We also know that there are many theories out there.  Which one is your favorite?  Comment below!

Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels

Wooden Nickels first made their debut in the 1930’s, mostly in the State of Washington, as a response to the need for currency during the Depression.  When banks started failing, cities turned to other forms of currency to keep trade alive.

One thing that kept trade going, temporarily, in cities like Tenino and Blaine, Washington (see our previous blog), were wood nickels.  Made from pressed wood, merchants entered into agreement with the city’s chamber of commerce and began accepting wooden nickels instead of paper money for goods.

In order for this idea to work, shoppers had to trust that all merchants would accept the wooden nickels they received from the city.  Merchants had to trust that the city would take the wood nickels back in exchange for real money or gold.  Overall, the idea was not completely successful.  Most wooden nickels came with an expiration date, meaning you were out of luck if you had one past that date.  It was also quite common for people, particularly visitors to the area, to simply keep them as souvenirs.

Once the immediate need had passed, wood was outlawed as currency.  Banks, stores and other merchants still issued wooden nickels as souvenirs or for promotion, but they were essentially worthless beyond that.   Out of this arrangement was born the phrase, “Don’t take any wooden Nickels.”


Commonly used as a warning, “Don’t take any wooden nickels” meant not to get taken advantage of.  To be careful.   For example, “Have a great trip, and don’t take any wooden nickels.”  It was especially common to hear this phrase if you were heading into the city.

Today, we don’t really hear this phrase too often, except maybe from the mouths of our grandparents.  Although people no longer try to slip a wooden nickel in with our change, the warning behind the words is just as important!

‘Till the Cows Come Home

Most people are familiar with the phrase “’til the cows come home,” but what do cows coming home have to do with any situation you might find yourself in today?

In today’s world, this phrase means “for a very long, indefinite amount of time” or is used to describe an activity that is futile or unproductive.  For example “Let’s party til the cows come home!” or “You can argue with me until the cows come home, but it will not change my mind.”

This makes sense as cows, by nature, are rather slow animals who are generally not in a hurry to get anywhere.  In the evening, they are let out to pasture and don’t return until the wee hours of the morning for milking.

image (1)

Most sources track the origins of this phrase to Scotland in the earlier part of the 1800’s.  In the summer, cows in the Scottish Highlands were let out in search of food and would often not return to their barn until fall when the grass was gone and they needed food.19025-01

The first evidence of this phrase being used in literature was in 1829 in The Times when a reporter, referring to the Duke of Wellington and his desire to have a place in Peel’s cabinet said, “If the Duke will but do what he unquestionably can do, and propose a Catholic Bill with securities, he may be Minister, as they say in Scotland “until the cows come home.”


Another famous reference is from the movie Duck Soup, starring Groucho Marx when he says, “”I could dance with you till the cows come home. Better still, I’ll dance with the cows and you come home.”

“Bite the Bullet”

We’ve all faced those unavoidable challenges in life where we’ve had to bite the bullet, so to speak.  The phrase is not uncommon and is used today worldwide to discuss everything from measures taken against global warming to the philosophy of generative linguistics.  More literally, it might call attention to a 45 year-old male who necessitated aggressive treatment for lead poisoning after the actual ingestion of 206 bullets.  But where did the phrase originate and what does it really mean?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, to bite the bullet is to “behave bravely or stoically when facing pain or a difficult situation”.

First recorded by Rudyard Kipling in his 1891 novel “The Light that Failed”, the phrase takes on a metaphorical meaning of fortitude:
“Steady, Dickie, steady!’ said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. ‘Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.” (152).

Though no actual bullet was present, the idea of showing courage in times of despair is aptly illustrated by the thought of showing teeth and biting a lead bullet, a romanticized vision of advancing unthreatened.  Though this is the first written account of the phrase, speculations are made as to how far back the idiom actually dates.

A more common explanation derives the practice of physically biting a bullet from the early 1800’s, a time before effective anesthesia was administered.  Patients were allegedly given a lead bullet to clench between barred teeth as a way to cope with extraordinary pain of surgical procedure without an anesthetic, preventing the patient from biting off his own tongue.  Though a bullet seems like a viable, impromptu battlefield option – malleable as not to break teeth, a leather strap or piece of wood was more likely used and is depicted in every historical photograph and reference.

18th Century Amputation Kit

18th Century Amputation Kit

The practice, often associated with the American Civil War seems factually inadequate at best, as evidence suggests the use of ether and chloroform with their invention in 1847, fourteen years before the Civil War began in 1861.  Up until that point, the best remedy for having a leg sawed off was a stiff drink and some gut-deep courage.

By 1926 the phrase had found its way from bloodstained battlefields into the homes of English aristocracy.  English novelist and humorist P.G. Wodehouse’s famously funny character Bertie Wooster tells his valet Jeeves, “So brace up and bite the bullet.  I’m afraid I have bad news for you”, popularizing the phrase further.

Regardless of the beginnings of such a popular idiom, we all can relate to the feeling of sucking it up and biting the bullet.


Know Your Onions

To “know your onions” means knowing a lot about a subject. It’s a phrase that isn’t so common anymore. It’s a child of 1920’s slang, a slang that dreamed up such gems as “the bee’s knees”.

This is perhaps one of the stranger idioms you will find. What do onions have to do with being smart, anyway?

It all starts with a man with the unfortunate last name of ‘Onion’. English language expert Charles Talbut Onions edited the Oxford English Dictionary from 1895 through the mid-20th century. C. T. Onions knew his stuff where the English language was concerned, which creates the possibility that has name alone was enough to get the phrase going.

But there was more than one Onions. Mr. S. G. Onions of the numismatic industry produced coins for English schools starting in 1843. These coins were not used as real currency, but instead as learning tools for students learning to count. They had inscriptions that explained how currency added up, similar to “60 cents make a dollar” and so forth.

However, the first print appearance of “know your onions” didn’t occur until the 1920’s – in the U.S., far from either Onions’ lineage. The fact that the phrase seemed to first pop up in America suggests that neither of the Onions had a hand in its evolution.

Similar phrases, like “know your apples,” were created in the 1920’s, but only onions stuck around.

The idiom also makes for a great song.


It Costs an Arm and a Leg

According to this common idiom, anything that costs “an arm and a leg” is very expensive.

Many claim to know where the phrase “an arm and a leg” came from. But what is the actual source of this strange idiom?

One incorrect source, part of a popular email titled “Little History Lesson” that spread like wildfire in 2000, claimed that something costing “an arm and a leg” comes from the days of George Washington. Some paintings, the email said, show Washington with an arm behind his back, and other paintings show all his limbs. The painters purportedly charged by the number of limbs in the painting.

But this story is false. While painters might charge for extra details or larger paintings, there is no evidence to suggest a per-limb fee.

The phrase only really shows up after WWII – way after Washington’s time. The earliest known source that finds is from The Long Beach Independent in 1949: “Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say ‘Merry Christmas’ and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.”

As part of the cost of WWII, many soldiers had lost limbs during the war. Perhaps these amputations created a dark influence over the English language.

Most likely, however, is the combination of two previous phrases from the 19th century: “I would give my right arm” and “If it takes a leg”.