On 11 January 2012, I made a resolution to look up the meaning of common but abstract or metaphorical sayings I use, and then publish the results at the end of the year.
Here they are ...
11 January: "in the offing"
I used the phrase in an email and suddenly wondered what it actually meant. This triggered this whole project.
‘In the offing’ turns out to be a sailing term, for the region between the foreshore and the horizon; a ship (or now event) that is neither far nor near, but middling in its relationship to you. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/in-the-offing.html
17 January: “at first blush”
I knew what it meant when I used it, but was suddenly unsure if it actually was a saying.
It seems ‘blush’ is used here in an archaic meaning of ‘glimpse’. http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/38/messages/1699.html
This is one of my favourite sayings.
23 January: “bad rap”
Again, I knew what the phrase meant, but was curious about history.
The use of ‘rap’ to indicate false testimony or perjury goes back to 1700s. From the Oxford English Dictionary "to swear (a thing) against a person. Also intr. To swear; to perjure oneself." A 1752 example quoted in the OED: "I scorn to rap against a lady".
There are also suggestions that it comes from rap [over the knuckles] > rebuke > criminal charge/punishment > ‘take the rap’ and ‘rap sheet’.
26 January: “kettle of fish”
A request from a friend who I told about this project. No-one is entirely sure where the phrase (in either formation - a ‘pretty kettle of fish’ or a ‘different kettle of fish’) comes from, but it dates back to the time when “kettle” meant a large cooking vessel, and picnics featuring fish boiled in large pots came to England.
The noun 'kettle of fish' is listed by several reference works as dating from 1745, although the earliest actual citation of the term in print that I can find is in Thomas Newte's A tour in England and Scotland in 1785: "It is customary for the gentlemen who live near the Tweed to entertain their neighbours and friends with a Fete Champetre, which they call giving 'a kettle of fish'. Tents or marquees are pitched near the flowery banks of the river... a fire is kindled, and live salmon thrown into boiling kettles."
The French term fête-champêtre, meaning 'rural feast', was still in use at the time to describe outdoor meals. The word 'picnic' (also French - 'pique-nique') was introduced in the late 18th century but wasn't widely used until the end of the century
Why a kettle of fish was chosen to represent a muddle or mess isn't clear. It may be an allusion to the confusion of bones, head and skin that is left after the fish has been eaten. It may also be that 'a pretty kettle of fish' was just pure invention, along the lines of 'a pretty pickle'. The earliest uses of the phrase, which apparently are examples of the 'muddle' meaning, come from Henry Fielding and pre-date the fête-champêtre citation above. In The history of the adventures of Joseph Andrews, 1742, he writes:"'Here's a pretty kettle of fish', cries Mrs. Tow-wouse."7 February: ‘Bog standard’
Arose in a work-place discussion.
Possibly from standardised white ceramic toilet bowls http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/bog_standard; possibly from mispronouncing ‘bulk standard’ http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/bog-standard.html
24 February: ‘filthy lucre’
I spotted this being used by a poster on an InternetNZ comment thread, and became curious about where phrase comes from.
When William Tyndale translated aiskhron kerdos, "shameful gain" (Titus 1:11), as filthy lucre in his edition of the Bible, he was tarring the word lucre for the rest of its existence. But we cannot lay the pejorative sense of lucre completely at Tyndale's door. He was merely a link, albeit a strong one, in a process that had begun long before with respect to the ancestor of our word, the Latin word lucrum, "material gain, profit." This process was probably controlled by the inevitable conjunction of profit, especially monetary profit, with evils such as greed. In Latin lucrum also meant "avarice," and in Middle English lucre, besides meaning "monetary gain, profit," meant "illicit gain." Furthermore, many of the contexts in which the neutral sense of the word appeared were not wholly neutral, as in "It is a wofull thyng . . . ffor lucre of goode . . . A man to fals his othe [it is a sad thing for a man to betray his oath for monetary gain]." Tyndale thus merely helped the process along when he gave us the phrase filthy lucre.8 March: ‘One-upmanship’
My question was around how to format this word (one-upmanship? one-up-manship?). Once confirmed, I became curious about how old the phrase was and whether it (seemingly inevitably) had something to do with sailing.
Short answer: no. Disappointingly recent fabrication. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-upmanship:
One-upmanship is the art or practice of successively outdoing a competitor. The term originated as the title of a book by Stephen Potter, published in 1952 as a follow-up to The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or the Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating) (1947) and Lifemanship titles in his series of tongue-in-cheek self-help books, and film and television derivatives, that teach various "ploys" to achieve this.13 March ‘Hide nor hair’
I used this in a text I was writing. I figured it had something to do with hunting.
This sounds like such a typically western American expression that it is surprising to find that, though American, it is merely the reverse of one so old that it might have been known to Chaucer. The ancient saying was 'in hide and hair,' and the meaning was 'wholly, entirely.' The American phrase means 'nothing whatsoever'. Our first record of it occurs in one of the early works of Josiah G. Holland, The Bay Path, published in 1857: 'I haven't seen hide nor hair of the piece ever since.'20 March ‘Having a field day’
Spotted on a random cliche generating site (I know, I know, I’m ashamed of me too) and realised that my rural background colours how I think of this. In fact, it’s a military term that was extended in the 20th century to cover opportunity as well as entertainment/enjoyment.
Originally, a field day was a day literally spent on field maneuvers. This use goes back to the mid 1750s. From the 19th century it began to be used to describe other outdoor and pleasant events, such as hunting ("Sometimes a dance (though rarely on field days, For then the gentlemen were rather tired." - Lord Byron, Don Juan, 1823) and scientific expeditions ("We had a delightful field-day in the abbey." - Sir George Gilbert Scott Recollections, 1878). Gradually, it passed into an even broader meaning of ‘having a jolly good time’.
28 March: “For want of a nail …”
This is a little rhyme I’ve known since I was a kid - I must have picked it up in an inherited book - and when I used it in a tweet I wanted to track the reference.
The proverb is found in a number of forms, starting as early back as the 14th century:
"For sparinge of a litel cost, Fulofte time a man hath lost, The large cote for the hod."; For sparing a little cost often a man has lost the large coat for the hoodlum. (c 1390 John Gower, Confessio Amantis v. 4785-4787)
The earliest reference to the full proverb may refer to the death of Richard III of England at the Battle of Bosworth Field. This short variation of the proverb was published in "Fifty Famous People" by Richard Baldwin. The story associated with the proverb, describing the unhorsing of King Richard during battle, would place the proverb's origin after the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485. It should be noted that historically Richard's horse was merely mired in the mud. In the story, the proverb and its reference to losing a horse is directly linked to King Richard famously shouting "A Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse!", as depicted in Act V, Scene 4 from the Shakespeare play Richard III, which was written circa 1591.I still have a feeling I picked this up via Kipling.
2 April: Jesus wept
I popped open a website on April 2, and an involuntary ‘Jesus wept’ slipped out of my mouth (truly, it was hideous). I picked this saying up off my dad when I was little, out on the farm with him - he had quite a temper, and occasionally he would rage at the dogs when they wouldn’t do as they were told, stamping around and throwing things and screaming. One of his favourites epithets was Jesus wept to Moses and Mary walked on crutches. It came out all in one string: JesusweptoMoses, with your voice going up and down with each syllable: jeeeeeeeZUSwepTAmoSIS.
Google doesn’t believe in this phrase. ‘Jesus wept’ is, by itself, the shortest verse in the Bible (John 11:35, from the story of Lazarus).
4 April: One fell swoop
A friend pinged me ask if it was ‘one fell swoop’ or ‘one foul swoop’, then asked if the phrase would make it into The Document. So here it is.
Shakespeare either coined the phrase, or brought it to prominence, in Macbeth:
MACDUFF: [on hearing that his family and servants have all been killed]
All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
The ‘hell-kite’ refers to a hunting bird, and the 'swoop' is the descent in their flight for the kill.
13 April: ‘Under the thumb’ and ‘Wrapped round her little finger’
Researching falconry terms that morning (as one does) I discovered that, according to Wikipedia at least, these two phrases both relate to hawking, and refer to the leash the bird wears when carried on the fist. Fascinating.
16 May: ‘Upstairs for thinking, downstairs for dancing’
I shouted this phrase across the office to my then-boss - then realised for the first time ever that it is conceivably about sex. Blushed.
24 May: Scuttlebutt
A sudden thought this morning, posted to Twitter (when thinking about a piece of gossip I have in my hands, but am choosing not to do anything with, mostly because - as with so much ‘gossip’ - it’s actually of little interest to anyone):
I want 'scurril' to be a word, to match up with 'scurrilous'. The best I can reach right now is 'scuttlebutt'.
This made me wonder where ‘scuttlebutt’ comes from. According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scuttlebutt
Scuttlebutt in slang usage means rumor or gossip, deriving from the nautical term for the cask used to serve water (or, later, a water fountain).
The term corresponds to the colloquial concept of a water cooler in an office setting, which at times becomes the focus of congregation and casual discussion. Water for immediate consumption on a sailing ship was conventionally stored in a scuttled butt: A butt (cask) which had been scuttled by making a hole in it so the water could be withdrawn. Since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became Navy slang for gossip or rumours.5 June: Gung ho
I thought of this word when I was belting around my house, getting shit done, in a rather careless and slapdash but highly effective manner. It has one of the most interesting origins I’ve found so far. Straight from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gung_ho:
Gung ho is a slang term in American English used to mean "enthusiastic" or "dedicated" originally used in Marine slang. It is an anglicised pronunciation of "gōng hé" (工合), the shortened version and slogan of the "gōngyè hézuòshè" (工業合作社) or Chinese Industrial Cooperatives, which was abbreviated as INDUSCO in English.
The two Chinese characters forming the word Gung Ho are translated individually as "Work" and "Together".
The linguist Albert Moe studied both the origin and the usage in English. He concludes that the term is an "Americanism that is derived from the Chinese, but its several accepted American meanings have no resemblance whatever to the recognized meaning in the original language" and that its "various linguistic uses, as they have developed in the United States, have been peculiar to American speech." In Chinese, concludes Moe, "this is neither a slogan nor a battle cry; it is only a name for an organization."
The term was picked up by United States Marine Corps Major Evans Carlson from his New Zealand friend, Rewi Alley, one of the founders of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives. Carlson explained in a 1943 interview: "I was trying to build up the same sort of working spirit I had seen in China where all the soldiers dedicated themselves to one idea and worked together to put that idea over. I told the boys about it again and again. I told them of the motto of the Chinese Cooperatives, Gung Ho. It means Work Together-Work in Harmony...."
Later Carlson used gung ho during his (unconventional) command of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion. From there it spread throughout the U.S. Marine Corps (hence the association between the two), where it was used as an expression of spirit and into American society as a whole when the phrase became the title of a 1943 war film, Gung Ho!, about the 2nd Raider Battalion's raid on Makin Island in 1942.11 June: Civil, nautical and astronomical twilight
Not quite a phrase, but when I discovered and fell in love with these differentiations, they seemed to fit here. These are the subcategories of twilight, and range from civil (brightest) to astronomical (darkest).
12 June: Tongue in cheek
Used in a tweet:
@kebabette Oh, dear. All I know about Mary Webb is that I love Cold Comfort Farm's tongue-in-cheekiness.
Wikipedia once more to the rescue http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongue-in-cheek
Putting one's tongue into a cheek was formerly used to signify contempt. For example, in Tobias George Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random, which was published in 1748, the eponymous hero is taking a coach to Bath and apprehends a highwayman. This provokes an altercation with a less brave passenger: He looked black and pronounced with a faultering voice, 'O! 'tis very well — damn my blood! I shall find a time.' I signified my contempt of him by thrusting my tongue in my cheek, which humbled him so much, that he scarce swore another oath aloud during the whole journey.
The more modern ironic sense appears in the 1842 poem, "The Ingoldsby Legends," in which a Frenchman inspects a watch and cries: “'Superbe! Magnifique!' (with his tongue in his cheek)”.
The ironic usage originates with the idea of suppressed mirth — biting one's tongue to prevent an outburst of laughter.5 July: Tenterhooks
Because while correct, and historically backed up: to whit ---
Tenterhooks were used as far back as the fourteenth century in the process of making woollen cloth. After the cloth was woven it still contained oil from the fleece and some dirt. A fuller (also called a tucker or wa[u]lker) cleaned the woollen cloth in a fulling mill, and then had to dry it carefully or the wool would shrink. To prevent this shrinkage, the fuller would place the wet cloth on a large wooden frame, a "tenter", and leave it to dry outdoors.... it is still much less lovely than tenderhooks.
By the mid-eighteenth century the phrase "on tenterhooks" came to mean being in a state of uneasiness, anxiety, or suspense, stretched like the cloth on the tenter. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenterhook)
7 July: ‘Hold a candle to’
Someone used this in a conversation with me, describing the woman they were hopelessly, pointlessly, fruitlessly in love with.
I can find two histories:
Apprentices used to be expected to hold the candle so that more experienced workmen were able to see what they were doing.
Sir Edward Dering used a similar phrase 'to hold the candle' in his The fower cardinal-vertues of a Carmelite fryar, 1641: "Though I be not worthy to hold the candle to Aristotle."
'To hold a candle' is first recorded in 1883 in William Norris's No New Thing: "Edith is pretty, very pretty; but she can't hold a candle to Nellie."
There is also:
It goes back to Shakespeare's time, before there was any such thing as street lighting. In those days a person returning home from a tavern or theater would be accompanied by a linkboy, who carried a torch or candle. These linkboys were considered very inferior beings, so to say that Tom couldn't 'hold a candle to ' Harry meant that Tom was very much inferior to Harry." Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, William and Mary Morris, 1977/1988.
23 July 2012: ‘boilerplate’
Used as lazy shorthand, referring to copyright text in a wireframe. Wikipedia, thank-you-very-much http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boilerplate_text
"Boiler plate" originally referred to the maker's label used to identify the builder of steam boilers.
In the field of printing, the term dates back to the early 1900s. From the 1890s onwards, printing plates of text for widespread reproduction such as advertisements or syndicated columns were cast or stamped in steel (instead of the much softer and less durable lead alloys used otherwise) ready for the printing press and distributed to newspapers around the United States. They came to be known as 'boilerplates'. Until the 1950s, thousands of newspapers received and used this kind of boilerplate from the nation's largest supplier, the Western Newspaper Union.17 August 2012: ‘foot in my mouth’
Used in a conversation about Etsy banning the sale of body parts.
The internet doesn’t appear to know the origin of this saying. One source did date it to 1965 (which I find implausible) and others made the link to foot and mouth disease (also implausible).
19 August 2012: ‘spreadeagled’
Used when describing Duchamp’s Etant Donnes: Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas on the radio.
lit. "splayed eagle," 1570, a heraldic term; the figure is that of the seal of the United States (hence spreadeagleism "extravagant laudation of the U.S.," 1858). Meaning "person secured with arms and legs stretched out" (originally to be flogged) is attested from 1785.24 August: ‘dark horse’
I used this phrase quite often after being shortlisted for a job interview.
The earliest-known use of the phrase is in Benjamin Disraeli's novel The Young Duke (1831). Disraeli's protagonist, the Duke of St. James, attends a horse race with a surprise finish: "A dark horse which had never been thought of, and which the careless St. James had never even observed in the list, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph.”26 August: ‘balls to the wall’
And I used this phrase quite often after going to the job interview. For once, Urban Dictionary didn’t make me blush http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=balls+to+the+wall
The "balls" are knobs atop the plane's throttle control. Pushing the throttle all the way forward, to the wall of the cockpit, is to apply full throttle.
Steam engines had mechanical regulators that consisted of a pair of hinged lever arms with a ball on the end of each arm, as the engine sped up the centrifugal force caused the arms to raise up closing a valve. If you adjust the regulator so that the arms go to horizontal (with the balls pointing to the wall) without closing the valve you are not limiting the speed of the engine.3 September: ‘dishy’
Used to describe Kobi Bosshard on twitter (seriously - smoking hot). No explanation available online, but several statements that it was first used in 1961.
3 September: ‘skin in the game’
Came up in a series of blog posts I was reviewing. The NYT does it better than I ever could.
10 September: ‘many happy returns’
I used this in a happy birthday email and wondered about its history.
Since the 18th century this has been used as a salutation to offer the hope that a happy day being marked would recur many more times. It is now primarily used on birthdays; prior to the mid 19th century it was used more generally, at any celebratory or festive event.
Current usage is often as a more formal option than 'Happy Birthday'. It is also often to be found on greetings cards.
Its earliest attributable use was by Lady Newdigate in a letter written in 1789 (and published in Newdigate-Newdegate Cheverels in 1898): "Many happy returns of ye day to us my Dr Love". The letter is written in London on the 31st of May 1789 by Lady Hester Margaretta Mundy Newdigate to her husband, Sir Roger Newdigate, 5th Baronet, and refers to a wish for their wedding day.
A much earlier reference is found in Addison's The Free-Holder: "The usual Salutation to a Man upon his Birth-day among the ancient Romans was Multos & foelices; in which they wished him many happy Returns of it."
An alternative explanation is that "returns" here is used in the sense of "yield" or "profit" that it is still found in "investment returns". Therefore "many happy returns of the day" would be a wishing a person a rewarding day, full of happiness. This use has been traced back to Joseph Addison in 1716.12 September: ‘pipe-dream’
I used it in an email, and then suddenly feared it wasn’t a word. (I do have a distinct memory of the first time I met this phrase though, in a creative writing class in Form One.)
This phrase first popped up in the 19th century, with the earliest known documented case coming from Chicago, Illinois; specifically, coming from the December of 1890 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune, in this case referring to aerial navigation: “It has been regarded as a pipe-dream for a good many years.”
Yet another reference in Chicago, in September of 1895, demonstrates the true origin of phrase in terms of meaning, namely, as a reference to the dreams experienced when smoking opium. This September of 1895 reference is from the Fort Wayne Gazette:
There are things taking place every day in Chicago which are devoid of rational explanation as the mysterious coinings of the novelist’s brain. Newspaper men hear of them, but in the rush for cold, hard facts, the ‘pipe stories‘, as queer and unexplainable stories are called, are at a discount. Were it not for this the following incident, which can be verified by the word of several reputable men, would have long ago received the space and attention it merits instead of being consigned to the wastebasket as the ‘pipe dream‘ of an opium devotee.15 September: ‘Bite the bullet’
I used this phrase when I finally committed to my first et al piece. Take it away, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bite_the_bullet
The phrase was first recorded by Rudyard Kipling in his 1891 novel The Light that Failed. It is often stated that it is derived historically from the practice of having a patient clench a bullet in his or her teeth as a way to cope with the extreme pain of a surgical procedure without anesthetic, though evidence for biting a bullet rather than a leather strap during surgery is sparse. It may also have evolved from the British empire expression "to bite the cartridge", which dates to the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In this version of the etymology, the idea of tolerating necessary hardship refers to the British wish that the sepoys would ignore any small presence of animal fat in their paper cartridges.26 September: ‘natch’
I used this in a tweet. It’s simply short for naturally. I was disappointed. I had hoped for better.
3 October: ‘feet of clay’
I was thinking about this phrase in the elevator after ranting to a friend about the importance and magicalness of artists, and our need to give a shit about what they do. And I thought sure, as humans they have feet of clay, but the work they make transcends that. And then I thought ... I bet that phrase is from the Bible. And lo, so it is ...
The phrase comes from the Old Testament (Dan.2:31-32). There the Hebrew captain Daniel interprets a dream for Nebuchadnezzar, founder of the new Babylonian Empire. Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of a giant idol with golden head, silver arms and chest, brass thighs and body, and iron legs. Only the feet of this image, compounded of iron and potter's clay, weren't made wholly of metal. Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that the clay feet of the figure made it vulnerable, that it prophesized the breaking apart of his empire. Over the years readers of the Bible were struck with the phrase 'feet of clay' in the story and it was used centuries ago to describe an unexpected flaw or vulnerable point in the character of a hero or any admired person."From the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson
9 October: ‘heart’s content’
I use this phrase a lot - I’m going to try not to be embarrassed by the fact that I was prompted to look it up after I tweeted this.
It comes from Shakespeare (Shakespeare or the Bible - covers 85% of these enquiries). From http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/hearts-content.html
This phrase is first put into print in Shakespeare's plays and there's every reason to believe that he coined it. He used it in at least two plays:
Henry VI, Part II, 1592 - Her grace in Speech, Makes me from Wondring, fall to Weeping ioyes, Such is the Fulnesse of my hearts content.
The Merchant of Venice, 1596 - I wish your Ladiship all hearts content.
It is also found in a letter Shakespeare sent to the Earl of Southampton, as the dedication of the poem Venus and Adonis:
Right Honourable, - I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burthen: only, if your Honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But, if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your honourable survey, and your Honour to your heart's content; which I wish may always answer your own wish, and the world's hopeful expectation,17 October: ‘cuts no ice’
I used in a tweet to Michael Edson. First I had to look it up to make sure it wasn’t ‘cuts no dice’. And looking it up showed me that no-one really knows where it comes from. Ice-skating is one possible avenue - blunt skates cut no ice. Likewise, in pre-refrigeration era when blocks of ice were used to keep food cool, a blunt knife shaved ice badly.
One commentator suggested it morphs out of the saying ‘cuts no figure’ (figure > figure skating > ice). The first appearances seem to be very late 1800s.
It feels to me like I missed an opportunity to tack a ‘buster’ on at the end. This research did lead to the discovery of the phrase ‘Sorry don’t shine no shoes’ though, which I rather love.
29 October: ‘Live by the sword’
Used in response to a DM that described some people who have gotten themselves into strife as ‘hustlers’. Inevitably, biblical:
Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52, King James Version)12 December: Footloose and fancy-free
Used in an email organising a posse for the Game Masters exhibition at Te Papa. Suddenly wondered where it came from.
First Google result was Rod Stewart’s 8th studio album. This was rather mortifying. It’s a favoured phrase, and this was not the origin I was looking for. But! Sailing to the rescue.
From Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable "a sail on which the restraining ropes at the base (foot) have been slackened off" which has transmuted into the phrase "footloose and fancy free" meaning "unattached romantically / young, free and single".
17 December 2012: wreak
I wanted to use the phrase ‘wreak confusion’ in an email, and had to double-check the wreck/wreack/wreak spelling.
The phrase does not appear to have any particular origin, but it’s definitely wreak, with work and wrought being acceptable past tense options. I did like this though - from a discussion of what kinds of things one can wreak: destruction, confusion and havoc ...
The word havoc, from Old French havot, was originally a command for invading soldiers to start pillaging. Hence Shakespeare’s "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war."11 January 2013: Finis
And that's it. My #threesixfive of sorts, done and dusted. (Originally because writing with a wet ink pen needs to be blotted dry, and the original blotting method was pounce powder. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/done_and_dusted)
I am currently trialling a new #threesixfive project, selecting a work from the McCahon database every day and trying to say something about it. I'm doing that in Google Plus, which is a bit like putting your head under a breaking wave and shouting when it comes to communication tools. We'll see how it goes.