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.


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.