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!

January 8, 2009 - 10:25am
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