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?

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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!

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”.

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

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.

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.

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?

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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!