When I was a kid, my parents had a few different rituals they employed before it was time for me to go to bed. Sometimes the ritual involved reading a book. Other times it involved what we called "a meeting," which was basically my mom or dad sitting at the foot of the bed, chatting, telling stories about their childhoods, etc. During the summer, when school was out, another ritual involved the radio, if you recall my last On Music post. But whatever ritual they threw at me, the night always ended with one of them closing the door until it was open just a crack (at my request). As the door slowly shut, they'd ask, "How far should I close it?" And I'd respond back, "Just wing it!" Not sure where I picked that up, but it was my favorite phrase for some years, even if I wasn't using it entirely correctly.
I never thought about the origin of the phrase "winging it" until I was working with the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. His grandfather was Boris Thomashefsky, the great Yiddish theater star, and he told that Boris and the other actors often didn't know what play they'd be performing until they got to the theater that night. With so many bits in the repertoire, they had to memorize most of their lines for every play, just in case one was put on the marquee that evening. Of course, even the great Thomashefsky couldn't memorize every line by heart, so the actors would often glance at the script in the wings when their character had a moment off-stage. Thus: winging it.
Have an interesting story about the origin of a classic phrase you think we need to know? Slap "˜em down in the comments. I'll leave you with the origin of am/pm, just in case you never stopped to wonder: ante meridiem in Latin is "before midday" while post meridiem is "after midday."