Why Do You “Lose Your Marbles”?

To “lose your marbles” means to go crazy. Once you lost your marbles, your sanity is far gone. But that seems like an odd association – what do marbles have to do with sanity?

There are a number of different possible origins of the phrase. But what was the first use? The meaning likely comes from the connection with a child losing his toys, such as his marbles, and not being happy about it. In 1886, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat published this sentence in an excellent summation of the connection of ideas: “He has roamed the block all morning like a boy who has lost his marbles.”

In the late 1800’s to “lose your marbles” meant getting angry. For a while “marbles” danced the line between meaning “anger” and “sanity”. One interesting note is that in the 1920’s, a person who had lost control had “let his marbles go with the monkey”, a phrase that came from a story about a boy whose marbles were taken by a monkey.

The meaning changed by the 20th century, however. In 1898 The Portsmouth Times published this line: “Prof. J. M. Davis, of Rio Grande college, was selected to present J. W. Jones as Gallia’s candidate, but got his marbles mixed and did as much for the institution of which he is the noted head as he did for his candidate.”

And in 1927, American Speech sealed the deal by defining losing your marbles as “Marbles, doesn’t have all his (verb phrase), mentally deficient.”

 

Sources:

Phrases.org

Idiomation

Keep the Ball Rolling

You’ve probably used the idiom before; you want to “keep the ball rolling”. The phrase, if you aren’t familiar, means to keep up a situation or activity, to keep it going.

The source of this phrase is early. It starts with an eccentric man named Jeremy Bentham, who wrote to George Wilson in 1781 to try and keep a conversation going. He wrote, “I put a word in now and then to keep the ball up.” (“Keep the ball up” was an older, British version.)

But the guy who really established the phrase was none other than Benjamin Harrison in his 1888 presidential campaign. His supporters created a giant ball covered with campaign slogans and rolled it from campaign to campaign across the country, chanting “keep the ball rolling”. They rolled the ball about 5,000 miles, across many states, to Indiana, Harrison’s home state.

Don’t you hear from every quarter, quarter, quarter / Good news and true, / That swift the ball is rolling on / For Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.

Harrison’s campaign was the first with a political slogan (“For Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”). Harrison’s campaign against Grover Cleveland was a close one, but Harrison won in the end.

That Just Takes the Cake!

You’ve heard the phrase before – often as an expression of incredulity. “That just takes the cake!”

But what does cake have to do with winning the prize, so to speak?

You may think it comes down to the game that revolves all around cakes, the cake walk – but the first “take the cake” reference occurred circa 420 B.C. Aristophanes’ fourth play The Knights, a tale of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, contained a line that literally translates to, “If you surpass him in impudence the cake is ours.” Of course, this doesn’t refer to a literal cake (though that would be pretty cool too). It uses “cake” as a metaphor for victory.

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“The true cake walk at the new circus.”

While this is a logical origin of the phrase, the use came and went in just the one line – disappearing until the 19th century. This is when William Trotter Porter’s A Quarter Race in Kentucky used this line: “They got up a horse and fifty dollars in money a side…each one to start and ride his own horse…the winning horse take [sic] the cakes.” Once again, cake refers to victory.

This is where the cake walk comes in. In black southern communities of the U.S., couples dressed their best and paraded through a course with cakes with their best walk. The best-dressed, most charismatic couple won the walk, often winning some of the cakes they had walked through.

See this 1874 reference to a cake walk: “The cake-walk, in which ten couples participated, came off on Friday night, and the judges awarded the cake, which was a very beautiful and costly one, to Mrs. Sarah and John Jackson.”

It’s still a mystery as to why Aristophanes’ first real “take the cake” disappeared for centuries, and why it only reappeared in the 19th century.

 

Sources:

Phrases.org

Historical Origins

More Bang for Your Buck

The phrase means “more value for your money,” and it has a more political origin than you might expect.

It all starts in the 1950’s with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Charles Erwin Wilson. He used the word “bang” quite literally as a reference to nuclear weapons because the new New Look security policy called for greater reliance on nuclear weapons.  In this context, Wilson used the phrase as “more bombs for your money”. The U.S. Military wanted to use more weaponry power and the phrase “bigger bang for your buck” could hardly be a better summation.

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Charles E. Wilson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Arthur W. Radford observing a controlled explosion.

Thanks to the phrase’s catchy alliteration, it stuck around. But it did lose its political connotation as time passed on, moving instead toward the meaning that we know and love today.

The first transcribed account of “bang for the buck” appeared in New Language of Politics in 1968, where the author William Safire recounts Wilson’s invention of the phrase.

The earlier equivalent of “more bang for your buck” was Pepsi’s 1950 slogan “more bounce to the ounce”.

 

Sources:

Phrases.org.uk

Wikipedia

Web Citation

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

They say you’re “between a rock and a hard place”. The meaning is clear: none of your choices are good ones. 

But where did this phrase originate? Like many American phrases we use today, it comes from the early 20th century. (Other cultures have similar sayings in different forms that had their own separate evolutions.)

It’s likely the rock and the hard place came from the U.S. Bankers’ Panic of 1907. The first in-print reference of the phrase comes from 1921 by the American Dialect Society: “To be between a rock and a hard place, …to be bankrupt. Common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California.”

Graffart_tiesse_houyeuIt was indeed a panicked time in America, especially for the mining and railroad industries. Programs and organizations lost much of their funding.

 

In 1917, Arizona copper mining companies and miners had a feud. The miners made demands that the companies did not match, and some miners were shipped out as a result. The situation these miners faced was indeed a rock and a hard place, popularizing the phrase and putting it into popular use. The late 1930’s saw the phrase being printed more and more into newspapers.

Source: Phrases.org

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen

You’ve heard the phrase before – “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!” But did you know that we have a former U.S. President to thank for it?

The more obvious source of the phrase says that a kitchen with a hot stove and a hot oven will overheat. Only those prepared to withstand the heat will keep working in the kitchen.

Harry S. Truman used the phrase even before he became president.

Truman took that reasoning to heart and used the saying quite often. When he was a senator he found his favorite saying being written into a newspaper article:

“Favorite rejoinder of Harry S. Truman when a member of his war contracts investigating committee objects to his strenuous pace: ‘If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

President Truman on opening day of baseball season.

President Truman on opening day of baseball season.

His achievement of the position of president, of course, significantly increased awareness of the phrase. (Some suggest that it was actually Truman’s military adviser General Harry Vaughn who created it.)

Truman is also said to have created the phrase “pass the buck”.

It’s not surprising that Truman, known for his frank way of talking, spread this popular phrase to the public.

That’s All She Wrote

 

“That’s all she wrote” is an American phrase used to say that there is nothing else to say about a subject.

And where did it come from? Well, some say it’s the product of some unfortunate soldier in WWII. The tale goes like this: A soldier eagerly opens a letter from his sweetheart. He starts reading to his buddies: “Dear John.” They tell him to go on. “That’s it; that’s all she wrote.” The poor serviceman knows he just got dumped.

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It’s an entertaining tale, and plausible enough. The “Dear John” phrase started being used around WWII, and a number of newspapers reference the letters. Some people credit Franklin Roosevelt with originating the phrase, though that’s probably only because he wrote a lot of letters to people named John.

Concrete written records of “that’s all she wrote” start appearing in 1942; one of the first references from the St. Petersburg Times said: “The things that brought tears to their eyes included…the downcast GI about whom another told them ‘He just got a Dear John letter.’”

The source might also have come from a song by the popular singers Aubry Gass and Tex Ritter which had the line “And that’s all she wrote, Dear John”. And the musician Ernest Tubb sang the country song “That’s All She Wrote” with the lyrics: “I got a letter from my mama, just a line or two / She said listen daddy your good girl’s leavin’ you / That’s all she wrote – didn’t write no more / She’d left the gloom a hanging round my front door.”

It’s perhaps not the most cheerful of phrase origins; but the original WWII tale made the phrase stick around to this day.

 

As Easy As Pie

Nothing is as American as apple pie, or so they say. And, as some have it, some things are “easy as pie”.

Pie isn’t a particularly easy endeavor, however, as anyone who has made it should know. So how did the phrase “easy as pie” come to be?

Plenty of English phrases have the structure “as blank as blank”, so the phrase itself is not that unusual.

The phrase likely comes from 19th century America. One simple explanation suggests that the idiom applies not to the making of pie, but the eating of it, which is in fact a pretty simple task.

Ready for some pie? From a vintage Thanksgiving postcard.

Ready for some pie?
From a vintage Thanksgiving postcard.

Mark Twain liked to compare many things to pie. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published 1884, he wrote “You’re always as polite as pie to them.” This was not the only comparison he made to pie, either. For instance, he also wrote that someone “was just old pie to him, so to speak.”

The first known printed use of “easy” pie came in 1887, from a newspaper called Newport Mercury that said, “You see veuever I goes I takes away mit me a silverspoon or a knife or somethings, an’ I gets two or three dollars for them. It’s easy as pie. Vy don’t you try it?”

So while the direct reason for the phrase is not known, it seems simple enough as a naturally forming simile.

Another source suggests that today’s usage comes from an Indigenous Australian expression “pie at” or “pie on” which has a positive connotation. However, the claims suggest that the phrase originated in the 1920s, definitely after the first printed appearance.

“Easy as pie” came effortlessly into the English language, almost as effortlessly as pie.

Don’t Throw Out the Baby with the Bathwater

The idiom “throw out the baby with the bathwater” offers this advice: don’t rid yourself of something valuable in the process of getting rid of something undesirable.

The phrase has been in use in English from the late 19th century, and in German way before then. Where did it really come from?

One swirling rumor suggests that in Medieval times, shared bath water became so dirty that by the time the baby was bathed in it, the water was so dark with dirt that one risked forgetting the baby and throwing it out with the water. Obviously this source is untrue, as no one was ever so careless as to let their child drown in a murky tub of water.

Murner.Nerrenbeschwerung.kind

The true source of the phrase does still come from the 16th century, however. Its first use occurred in the satire Appeal to Fools (Narrenbeschwörung) by Thomas Murner in 1512 and since then it has been a common German phrase. (The book used woodcut above, showing the quite literal interpretation.)

In the 19th century Thomas Carlyle translated the proverb into an essay against slavery, using the dirty water as a metaphor for slavery.

Since then, “throw out the baby with the bathwater” has been used regularly in the English language.

Break a Leg: Where Did This Idiom Come From?

Any actor, musician or performer is used to hearing or saying “break a leg” right before a big performance.

It may seem barbaric to anyone unfamiliar with the term, but it’s only a way of saying “good luck,” albeit with a rather violent implication.

So how on Earth did the saying start?

Actors are incredibly superstitious people. An article called “A Defence of Superstition” claimed that in horse-racing, also a superstitious institution, wishing “good luck” is considered unlucky. It claims, “You should say something insulting such as ‘May you break your leg!’”800px-Theater_am_Meer_Wilhelmshaven_Vorhang

Consider another meaning behind “break a leg” – it also means to make a great effort. This meaning came before its use in the theater; this source quotes The Hammond Times from 1942: “Whatever the army or navy want, the Continental Roll [and Steel Foundry] will turn out … Or break a leg trying.”

With this earlier meaning, “break a leg” might simply tell actors to put in their best effort.

The meaning could also be as simple as having your “big break” in a play.

Just like many other popular idioms, “break a leg” doesn’t have a clear origin. But it’s so popular that the ‘why’ of it all doesn’t matter so much as the meaning behind it.