CLOSE
Shutterstock
Shutterstock

"Luck of the Irish" is an Old Mining Expression

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

In time for St. Patrick’s Day, everyone at Wordnik started wondering about the origins of luck-related words.

1. Luck of the Irish

The phrase luck of the Irish is commonly thought to mean “extreme good fortune.” However, according to Edward T. O’Donnell, an Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College and author of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History, the term has not an Irish origin but “a happier, if not altogether positive,” American one.

"During the gold and silver rush years in the second half of the 19th century, a number of the most famous and successful miners were of Irish and Irish American birth. . . .Over time this association of the Irish with mining fortunes led to the expression 'luck of the Irish.' Of course, it carried with it a certain tone of derision, as if to say, only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains, could these fools succeed."

2. Luck

The word luck is Middle Dutch in origin, coming from luc, a shortening of gheluc, “happiness, good fortune.”

Luck may have been borrowed into English in the 15th century as a gambling term. (Draw an ambsace, or double aces? Then you’re S.O.L.—a phrase which originated as World War I military slang.)

3. Potluck

Potluck, now mostly associated with “a meal consisting of whatever guests have brought,” originally meant “what may chance to be in the pot, in provision for a meal; hence, a meal at which no special preparation has been made for guests.” And while potluck bears a striking resemblance to potlatch, a Native American “feast, often lasting several days,” according to the Word Detective, “there is no actual connection between the words.”

4. Hap

Hap is older than luck. Originating in the 12th century, the word comes from the Old Norse happ, meaning “chance, good luck.” Hap gives us happy, as well as haphazard, “chance; accidental; random”; hapless, “luckless, unfortunate”; and mishap, “misfortune.”

5. Auspicious

Auspicious, “of good omen; betokening success,” comes from the Latin auspicium, “divination by observing the flight of birds.” In ancient Rome, an augur was “a functionary whose duty it was to observe and to interpret, according to traditional rules, the auspices, or reputed natural signs concerning future events.” An auspex was an augur “who interpreted omens derived from the observation of birds.” To auspicate means “to initiate or inaugurate with ceremonies calculated to insure good luck.”

6. Luckdragon

A luckdragon, “a fictitious flying dragon with a wingless elongated body, possessing neither magical talent nor immense physical strength, but distinctive in its unfailing serendipity,” is a meme based on the character from the film, The Neverending Story.

http://youtu.be/ZWnW-OuggoE

7. Lucky-penny

A lucky-penny is “a small sum given back ‘for luck’ to the purchaser or payer by the person who receives money in a bargain or other transaction,” as well as “a copper tossed overboard ‘for luck.’”

8. Lucky-bag

A lucky-bag is “a receptacle on a man-of-war for all clothes and other articles of private property carelessly left by their owners,” so-called because these articles “were later auctioned off,” says A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy, “thereby making those Sailors fortunate enough to obtain new items for relatively little money ‘lucky.’” Another definition of lucky-bag is similar to that of grab bag or goody bag.

9. Prosit

Want to wish someone good luck? Prosit! you might say over drinks. Prosit means “good luck to you,” and comes from the Latin, by way of German, pr?sit, “may it benefit.”

10. Mascot

Or — and this seems particularly appropriate during the NCAA Tournament — you could get your own mascot, “a thing supposed to bring good luck to its possessor; a person whose presence is supposed to be a cause of good fortune.” The word mascot comes from the French mascotte, “sorcerer’s charm,” which ultimately comes from the Medieval Latin masca, “mask, specter, witch.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Words
15 Wintry Words for Snowy Weather Across the United States
iStock
iStock

While the “Eskimos have 100 words for snow” debate remains up in the (cold, cold) air, we do know—thanks in large part to the folks at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)—that Americans have no lack of idioms for the chilly white stuff. Here are 15 of them from all over the United States.

1. CAT’S TRACK

A long-haired tabby cat playing in the snow.
iStock

When there’s a light fall of snow, you can call it cat’s track, a term used in Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Wisconsin. A resident from the Badger State says, “If there is enough snow to track a cat, there has been a snowfall.” Conversely, not much snow can be described as “not enough snow to track a cat.”

2. SKIFT

A little girl rubbing her nose on the carrot nose of a snowman while snow falls.
iStock

Skift refers to a light fall of snow, according to DARE, as well as a “thin layer of snow or frost on the ground, or of ice on water.” The use of the term is widespread across the U.S. except in the Northeast, South, and Southwest.

3. SKIMP

A pond covered in a thin layer of ice and snow.
iStock

If someone in Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, or north-central Arkansas says, “Watch out for that skimp,” better take heed. They’re talking about a thin layer of ice or snow. Skimp can also be a verb meaning to freeze in a thin coating.

4. GOOSE DOWN

Two Canadian geese on a frozen pond.
iStock

Get a light snow in Alabama? You can call it goose down.

5. GOOSEFEATHERS

A white feather on a black background.
iStock

In Vermont, large, soft flakes of snow might be referred to as goosefeathers.

6. THE OLD WOMAN IS PICKING HER GEESE

Five Canadian geese in a snow storm.
iStock

This colorful idiom for “It’s snowing” is especially used in the Appalachians, along with “The old woman’s a-losin’ her feathers.” Meanwhile, in Kentucky, you might hear Aunt Dinah’s picking her geese.

7. SCUTCH

A forest in a flurry of snow.
iStock

Another term for a light dusting or flurry of snow, this time in Delaware. Scutch might come from scuds, a word of Scottish origin meaning ale or beer.

8. SNOW SQUALL

Pedestrians and cars in the snow.
iStock

Why say snow shower when you can say snow squall? This chiefly Northeast saying refers to “a sudden snowstorm of short duration.” Its earliest recorded usage in American English is from 1775.

9. FLOUR-SIFTER SNOW

Flour being sifted in front of a black background.
iStock

The next time you’re in Montana surrounded by small-flaked snow, you can say, “We’ve got some flour-sifter snow!”

10. CORN SNOW

Brown stalks of corn in the snow.
iStock

You know it and you hate it: that granular, kernel-like snow that’s the result of repeated thawing and freezing. The term corn snow is used in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Oregon.

11. HOMINY SNOW

Three snowmen wearing bright scarves and hats.
iStock

If grits are more up your alley, there’s hominy snow, a saying native to the South Midland states. The word hominy, referring to a kind of boiled ground corn, is Native American in origin, possibly coming from the Algonquian uskatahomen, “parched corn.”

12. GRAMPEL

Snow and hail on wood.
iStock

This term in northeast Washington and southwest Oregon for a snow pellet that’s “somewhat like hail” is probably a variant on graupel, “soft hail.” Graupel is German in origin and comes from graupel wetter, which translates literally as “sleet weather.”

13. SNIRT

Dirty snow marked with tire tracks.
iStock

While it might sound like a cross between a snort and a snicker, this Upper Midwest term actually refers to a mix of windblown snow and dirt. The moniker itself is a blend too, namely of the words—you guessed it—snow and dirt.

14. SPOSH

A man shoveling slushy snow in a driveway.
iStock

Back in the day, New Englanders called slush sposh, which also referred to mud. The word is probably imitative in origin and might be influenced by words like slush, slosh, and splash.

15. POST-HOLING

A close-up of a person's legs, feet covered in snow.
iStock

Ever walk in snow so deep you sink with every step? That’s post-holing or post-holing it, a saying in Colorado, Arkansas, Montana, and northwest Massachusetts. The post here refers to a fence post and hole to the hole created to secure it in the ground. Now we just need a word for sinking up to your knee when you step off a curb into slush that you’ve mistaken for ice.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
iStock
iStock

Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios