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.”

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

The English language can be confusing.  Certainly, many of our idioms have fallen behind the times.  Hold the phones – What phones?  Don’t have a cow! – Surely, I’ll pass.  Where did these phrases come from and why have they stuck around despite their falling out with modern technology and culture?

On my morning walk I heard someone mention that they had “heard it straight from the horse’s mouth”.  Well, unless his horse is Mr. Ed, it seems quite unlikely that the man and his horse had a chat over breakfast and coffee.  Who’s to say the horse’s information would even be slightly reliable; or more reliable than say, hearing something straight from a person’s mouth?


The phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth” has become an idiom.  An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.  What meaning do we deduct from this word cluster?

We take the phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth” to mean getting information from an authoritative or credible source.  It might seemingly indicate that horses know best, however the phrase has an unexpected origin.

One possible origin comes from buying and selling horses back before the invention of the automobile.  As a means of labor and transportation, horses were very valuable in American civilization.  When buying a horse it was very important to obtain information about the animal’s health history and extenuating attributes, similarly to the way someone today would want to know the details about a car for purchase.  Apparently an excellent way to gage a horse’s age is by looking at its teeth, literally getting the facts straight from the horse’s mouth despite seller chicanery.  In one of my personal favorites, ‘Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye discloses to a man that the allegedly six year old horse he was sold actually turned out to be twelve.  “It was twelve!  It was tweeeelve!” he shouts during the iconic opening scenes as the town sings of “traditions, traditions“!

Another possible origin relates to horse racing.  When betting on a horse, gamblers would put their money behind someone “in the know” who possessed that golden tidbit of information.  How’d they bet on the winning horse?  Why, they heard it straight from the horse’s mouth!  The people who you’d imagine have the best conjectures about which horse might win are the trainers and stable boys.  So, to say that it was heard straight from the horse’s mouth humorously suggests that someone is a step ahead of even the inner circle of stable boys, hearing it from the horse himself.

Though you’d never guess that’s where a phrase we use all the time and understand the meaning of comes from, it seems to have stuck through the decades.  Though most of us don’t go around checking horses’ mouths to see if they’re a good purchase or spend our Sunday afternoons at the race track, you can be sure to trust it if you heard it from the horse’s mouth!

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”.

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.”




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.


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”.




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.


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.