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]

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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?

mr-edfinal

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“!

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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!

“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.

Chloroform
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.

(Source)

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 phrases.org 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.”

 

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