The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases

iStock
iStock

Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
Express/Express/Getty Images

The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

chimp eating banana
iStock

The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

40 Dandy D-Words To Deepen Your Vocabulary

iStock/gazanfer gungor
iStock/gazanfer gungor

It’s thought that the earliest ancestor of our humble letter D was an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph representing a door, which is where D get its hollowed-out shape from. Over time, that hieroglyph became a Phoenician letter, dalet, which then became the Greek letter delta, and finally the Roman letter D, which arrived in England (along with most of the rest of the modern alphabet) from continental Europe more than 1500 years ago.

Before then, English was written using a runic writing system called futhorc, a number of the letters of which—like thorn (Þ þ) and wynn (Ƿ ƿ)—survived into the Old English period before dying out later. The Old English letter eth(Ð ð), however, effectively went the other way: it was invented in Britain (or perhaps Ireland) after the introduction of the Latin alphabet to England, and is actually a derivative of the Roman letter D. Although it too eventually fell out of use, it still survives in modern-day Icelandic.

Nowadays, D is one of the most frequently used letters of our alphabet, accounting for just over 4 percent of a standard page of English text (or one out of every 25 letters), and roughly 2.5 percent of all the words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 delicious D words listed here…

1. DAB-DUMP

An old Yorkshire dialect word for a pool of water left on the beach after the tide retreats.

2. DABERLICK

Daberlick or dabberlack is an old dialect name for long, straggly seaweed. Figuratively, it can be used as a nickname for greasy, lank hair, or for a tall, gangly person.

3. DABSTER

An astute or especially skilled worker.

4. DAFFLED

If you’re daffled, then you’re bewildered or disorientated by a sensory overload.

5. DANDIE-CLAW

A dandie-claw is an easily completed task or, when used in the phrase, “to give it the dandie-claw,” it essentially means “that won’t last long,” or “that won’t take long to finish off.” No one is quite sure where the phrase comes from, but it’s possible that a dandy or dandie-claw was originally a small brush used to groom horses, which at some point in time might have become synonymous with a brief or undemanding chore.

6. DANDLE

To bounce a baby on your knee is to dandle it.

7. DANG-SWANG

To do something dang-swang is to do it vigorously, or with great energy or enthusiasm.

8. DANGLEMENT

An 18th century word either for a finger, or for a dangling decoration, or trim on a garment. A danglet—literally a “little dangle”—is an icicle.

9. DAPPERPYE

An old adjective meaning “variegated” or “multi-colored.”

10. DAPPERWIT

A quick-witted, lively young man.

11. DARING-HARDY

A Shakespearean invention meaning “recklessly bold,” or “foolhardy.”

12. DAWK

A thick fog or mist.

13. DAYLIGAUN

An old Scots word for twilight, dayligaun literally means “daylight-going.”

14. DEAD-HORSE

As a metaphor for something that has ceased to be useful, the term dead horse is today more often than not used in the phrase “flogging a dead horse,” meaning “to fruitlessly continue with something all interest has been lost in.” Before then, however, dead-horse was a 17th-century term for work for which you’d been paid in full in advance—and so to work the dead-horse or for a dead horse meant “to busy yourself in work that at the end of which you won’t be paid.” A dead-man, incidentally, is an old English nickname for an empty liquor bottle, so being down among the dead-men meant “passed out drunk on the floor” in 18th-century English.

15. DEAD-NIP

18th-century slang for a failed idea.

16. DEAMBULATE

To walk about, or to stray away from home.

17. DECIDOPHOBIA

If you’re decidophobic, then you hate making decisions. Other D phobias include dendrophobia (trees), dromophobia (running, or crossing roads), didaskaleinophobia (school), dipsophobia (alcohol), and doraphobia (animal furs).

18. DEDOLEATE

A 17th-century word meaning “to cease to be unhappy.”

19. DEJERATE

To swear a solemn oath. Someone who does precisely that is a dejerator.

20. DEONERATE

To unpack cargo or to remove someone’s burden is to deonerate them. To depauperate them is to impoverish them, while to depulse them would be to drive them off.

21. DEPECULATE

Peculation is an old 17th-century legal term for embezzlement—in particular, the embezzlement of funds belonging to a country or head of state. To peculate or depeculate, ultimately, is an old-fashioned word meaning “to steal by peculation,” which was typically used to refer to public officials pilfering state funds for their own personal use.

22. DEPEDITATE

In medical terminology, a depeditation is the amputation of a foot. Thankfully, the relative verb depeditate can simply be used to mean “to be deprived of the use of your feet”—worth remembering next time you go deambulating in a new pair of shoes.

23. DEPROELIATION

Derived from a Latin word meaning “to engage violently in war,” deproeliation is just a 17th-century word for a battle.

24. DIABLERIE

The perfect word for Dr. Faustus: diablerie is work or business done with, or for, the Devil. Figuratively, it can mean recklessness or audaciousness, or else any underhand, shady dealing.

25. DIABLOTIN

Borrowed into English from French in the 1800s, a diablotin is a tiny devil or imp. It’s also, because of its unusual appearance, a nickname for the oilbird.

26. DIAL-PLATE

An 18th century nickname for a person’s face (derived from the dial or “face” of a clock).

27. DILLYALL

An old English dialect word for anything owned because it looks nice, not because it’s useful or functional.

28. DILORICATE

To diloricate something is to rip or tear it. It derives from a Latin word, lorica, for a Roman soldier’s leather cuirass or breastplate—and so might originally have referred to injuries suffered in battle that were bad enough to puncture armor.

29. DIMBER

Dimber was a 17th-century word meaning “pretty” or “smart,” while a dimber-damber was the leader or “face” of a gang of rogues or vagabonds.

30. DISCALCEATE

To discalceate is to remove your shoes. Worth remembering once you’ve deambulated and depeditated.

31. DO-NO-BETTER

The slightly less complimentary Edwardian equivalent of bae—a do-no-better or do-nae-better was “a sweetheart whom one has to be content with, for want of a better.”

32. DOATY

When your head nods up and down while you’re trying to stay awake? That’s doatying.

33. DOCH-AN-DORRIS

A doch-an-dorris or deochandorus is a “stirrup-cup”—a drink or toast made with, or in honor of, someone about to leave. It derives from an old 17th-century Scots Gaelic phrase, deoch an doruis, that literally means “door-drink.”

34. DOCK-WALLOPER

Originally a nickname for someone who hangs around dockyards looking for work, dock-walloper is an old 19th-century American slang word for a loafer or idler.

35. DOLLYMAWKIN

A frivolous, scatterbrained young woman.

36. DOODLE-SHOP

An old dialect nickname for a sweetshop.

37. DRAGGLETAIL

In 18th-century English, an untidily or slatternly dressed woman. Literally, a woman who has let the tails of her dress drag through the rain or mud.

38. DULCILOQUY

A soft or sweet manner of speaking. Likewise, if you’re dulciloquent, then you have a pleasant voice.

39. DUTCH CONCERT

The incomprehensibleness of Dutch to speakers of English is the origin of double Dutch, meaning “gibberish” or “nonsense,” and Dutch concert, an old nickname for an incongruous or cacophonous mishmash of noises or sounds.

40. DWINE

To dwindle or pine away.

This article originally ran in 2016.

12 Old-Timey Turkey Terms to Bring Back This Thanksgiving

iStock.com/westernphotographs
iStock.com/westernphotographs

Want to spice up conversation this Thanksgiving? Use these terms while you’re talking turkey.

1. RUM COBBLE-COLTER

According to A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of Gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c., with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c., first published in the late 1600s, a cobble-colter is a turkey. A rum cobble-colter, on the other hand, is "a fat large cock-turkey."

2. I GUESS IT’S ALL TURKEY

This American phrase is “a quaint saying indicating that all is equally good.”

3. AND 4. BUBBLY-JOCK AND BOBBLE-COCK

Bubbly-jock is Scottish slang for a male turkey, from the noise the bird makes. The term can also be used to describe “a stupid, boasting person.” Both usages might apply at your Thanksgiving dinner. Slang for a turkey in northern England, meanwhile, is bobble-cock, according to The Slang Dictionary: Or, The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and "Fast Expressions” of High and Low Society, published in 1864.

5. TURKEY MERCHANTS

According to 1884’s The Slang Dictionary: Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal, this was a term for “dealers in plundered or contraband silk.” Previously, it referred to something more obvious: “a driver of turkeys and geese to market.”

6. ALDERMAN

A “well-stuffedturkey. An alderman in chains is a turkey with sausages; according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788, the sausages “are supposed to represent the gold chain worn by those magistrates.”

7. COLD TURKEY RAP

According to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of the Underworld: British and American, this 1928 term means "an accusation, a charge, against a person caught in the act." Perhaps you'll get a cold turkey rap for stealing seconds—or thirds—of your favorite dish this holiday.

8. BLOCK ISLAND TURKEY

An American slang term for salted cod, originating in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

9. TURKEY PUDDLE

Eighteenth-century slang for coffee.

10. SNOTERGOB

According to A Dictionary of the Scottish Language, snotergob is “the red part of a turkey’s head.”

11. RED AS A TURKEY COCK

This phrase dates back to 1630, according to Dictionary of Proverbs. It could refer to any kind of flushing of the face (including, perhaps, when your dad and your uncle are getting too worked up debating politics).

12. TO HAVE A TURKEY ON ONE’S BACK

According to the 1905 book A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, this is what you say when someone has imbibed a bit too much: It means “to be drunk.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER