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The Quick 10: The Origins of 10 Curious Phrases

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I rattle off phrases all of the time without knowing where they really come from. Lots of times you can decipher their origins pretty easily - muffin top, for example, doesn't take a whole lot of brain power to figure out. But I could have never guessed the origins of some of these phrases, which I now know thanks to Barbara Ann Kipfer's Phraseology book. I've written about this book before - it's endlessly fascinating.

1. "At the drop of a hat" comes from the days of gunfights on the frontier, when the drop of a hat was the signal for the shootout to begin.
sheep2. "Beat the tar out of" is thought to have come from sheep farmers, who would slather tar on a sheep's cut when it got nicked from shearing. Later, they would have to beat the tar out.
3. "Buckle down to work" originally meant a knight buckling down all of his armor before a battle.
4. "As fit as a fiddle" used to be "as fit as a fiddler," because a fiddler jumped and danced around so much while playing, he had to be in good shape.
5. "To skin a cat" doesn't actually mean a feline. It means a catfish "“ the skins of catfish are notoriously tough and hard to remove for cooking.
6. I always thought "start from scratch" referred to baking, but I suppose even the baking reference had to come from somewhere. It came from handicapping competitors during races: a line is scratched in the dirt; the person who starts there gets no special advantage.
7. "Under the weather" is a sea-faring term which means you're at sea when the weather changes for the worse.
8. "Paddywagon" is really a not-very P.C. term "“ it refers to the old stereotype that Irish people ("Paddy" being a common Irish name/nickname) tend to get arrested the most because of their hot tempers.
9. "Kick the bucket" comes from slaughterhouses, where, after slaughter, hogs would be hung up by a pulley with a weight called a bucket. I wonder if this goes back even further "“ perhaps a bucket was actually used for the weight once upon a time.
10. "Eating humble pie" came from "umble pie," a meat dish made of entrails and other animal leftovers. Women and children, AKA "umbles," had to eat these parts because all of the best cuts of meat went to the man of the house.

If there's a particular phrase that has you stymied, let me know in the comments - I'll try to find its origins (whether it's in Phraseology or not) and feature it in a future post. I can't promise anything, but I'll try!

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]


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