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.


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.

The Origin of the Ampersand


It’s the character that was taken out of the alphabet – but is still used every day.

The ampersand is mostly used stylistically today; it’s used as a symbol for “and”, but only to save room or for aesthetic reasons.

But the ampersand used to be much more common. Where did this strange symbol originate?

It all traces back to the 1st century A.D. and Roman cursive, where E and T were sometimes formed together as a single symbol. This ligature continued to be used through the years and became more and more stylized.

The modern ampersand that we’re so used to comes from this “et” ligature.

Medieval script

The “et” ligature in Medieval script.

Ever since printing was invented, the ampersand has been used extensively. At first it was simply called “and” or “et” (“Et” is the Latin word for “and”). The symbol had also become part of the Latin alphabet.

It even appeared at the end of the English alphabet as late as the 19th century. This is where it got its name: when children recited the alphabet, the ampersand came right after Z, recited as “and per se and” meaning “and in and of itself”.

This morphed into the abbreviation “ampersand”, which stuck around even after it was dropped from the alphabet.

With the popularity of typography these days, ampersands can be found in signs and other decor all over the place. And now you know where they came from.


The evolution of the ampersand.

The evolution of the ampersand.

Why You Should Care About the Great Alfred Vance


The word OK has a mixed up, confusing and downright misleading history. Over the years it has held plenty of different meanings. It started as an abbreviation of the play on words “oll korrect” and became a political joke connected to Martin van Buren during the 1840 election, leading to a number of playful (and sometimes not-so-playful) plays on words.

For more details on the history of the word, see this article by Mental Floss.

The Great Alfred Vance, known to his friends as family by his proper name Alfred Peek Stevens, is a little-remembered figure born in 1839. But he’s responsible for the origins of two different modern word usages in the English language.


Vance loved performing, and his musical comedy acts wowed the crowds. Vance had a great rival in George Leybourne, also a musical performer, who wrote the famous song “Champagne Charlie”. The two were commonly compared to each other thanks to their similar careers in “lion comique”; for example, they both sang songs praising the different types of alcoholic drinks. The rumor goes that Vance ended their rivalry with the song “Beautiful Beer”.

Vance’s song song “Walking in the Zoo” achieved the normalization of two different words: the word “okay” and the word “zoo”.

“Okay” was already in use at the time, of course, but Vance made the first recorded use with today’s meaning with the line “The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo.” This was the first recorded use of “okay” as the adjectival “good”.

Vance also created the word “zoo”. Previously, zoos had been called “zoological garden” – a bit of a mouthful even in 19th century lingo.

Let’s take a moment to thank The Great Alfred Vance for changing the way we use “okay”, and also making sure we don’t get tongue tied when we visit a zoo.

The walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo
Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo.

Vance never stopped performing. He died while performing on the Sun Music Hall stage in 1888.


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.


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.

It’s the Bee’s Knees!

It’s hard to think back to the flappers of the 1920s without evoking the phrase “bee’s knees”. The phrase implies something of the highest quality, but what is it about the nook of a bee’s leg that suggests the epitome of excellence?


One possible origin comes from the 1920s dancer Bee Jackson. She made the Charleston popular and became world famous for it. It’s possible that “bee’s knees” comes from Jackson’s dancing; however, the phrase precedes her fame.

Starting in the late 18th century, the expression was simple nonsense, meaning something useless or meaningless. As this source cites, one New Zealand newspaper in 1906 listed the cargo of the SS Zealandia as ‘a quantity of post holes, 3 bags of treacle and 7 cases of bee’s knees.’ And that’s only one of many similar uses of the phrase.

Flappers in the 1920s, ever the fashionable crowd, loved to make nonsense phrases out of animal-related terms. The “cat’s pyjamas,” the “snake’s hips,” the “flea’s eyebrows,” the “bee’s knees” – all of these meant something that was at the height of cool. Designated as “flapper talk,” not much of the lingo stuck around, but at least “bee’s knees” is here to stay.

Detail of a vintage sheet music cover.

Detail of a vintage sheet music cover.

Flapper lingo is all-around a creative and fun way to talk. Check out this list and see if you can bring back some of these words & phrases — and tell us your favorites!

Where Does the Phrase “Backseat Driver” Come From?

Where does the idiom “backseat driver” come from?

The phrase itself today means to give unwanted or critical advice from the sidelines, usually giving directions from the back of a car to a driver.

The literal backseat drivers from the days of yore may have had something to do with this saying. Firemen used to use long “articulated ladder trucks” with both front and back steering to help the truck turn with control.

However, there’s no known negative association with driving in the back of these trucks.file000715699119

According to this source, one of the first known appearances of the phrase occurred in 1914 in the Daily Kennebec Journal:

“When New York pitcher Vernon Gomez retires as a smokeballer he wants to become a smoke eater. Here he gets a tryout as a back-seat driver on a hook and ladder truck at St. Petersburg…”

That also has a more literal meaning, but here’s a line from 1921 explaining the meaning we’re more familiar with today:

“A back-seat driver is the pest who sits on the rear cushions of a motor car and tells the driver what to do. He issues a lot of instructions, gives a lot of advice, offers no end of criticism. And doesn’t do a bit of work.”

Harsh, but that’s the way it is.

The idiom “armchair quarterback” has a similar meaning, referring to a sports fan who shouts advice at a sports player from the sidelines or in front of the TV during a game.

Of course, those newfangled “robot cars” will someday eliminate any need for a backseat driver, as this 1950s magazine article explains: