The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases

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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
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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

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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
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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.”

15 Unique Illnesses You Can Only Come Down With in German

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The German language is so perfectly suited for these syndromes, coming down with them in any other language just won’t do.

1. Kevinismus

At some point in the last couple of decades, parents in Germany started coming down with Kevinismus—a strange propensity to give their kids wholly un-German, American-sounding names like Justin, Mandy, Dennis, Cindy, and Kevin. Kids with these names reportedly tend to be less successful in school and in life, although some researchers have suggested this could be due to a combination of teachers’ prejudices toward the names and the lower social status of parents who choose names like Kevin.

2. Föhnkrankheit

Föhn is the name for a specific wind that cools air as it draws up one side of a mountain, and then warms it as it compresses coming down the other side. These winds are believed to cause headaches and other feelings of illness. Many a 19th century German lady took to her fainting couch with a cold compress, suffering from Föhnkrankheit.

3. Kreislaufzusammenbruch

Kreislaufzusammenbruch, or “circulatory collapse,” sounds deathly serious, but it’s used quite commonly in Germany to mean something like “feeling woozy” or “I don’t think I can come into work today.”

4. Hörsturz

Hörsturz refers to a sudden loss of hearing, which in Germany is apparently frequently caused by stress. Strangely, while every German knows at least five people who have had a bout of Hörsturz, it is practically unheard of anywhere else.

5. Frühjahrsmüdigkeit

Frühjahrsmüdigkeit or “early year tiredness” can be translated as “spring fatigue.” Is it from the change in the weather? Changing sunlight patterns? Hormone imbalance? Allergies? As afflictions go, Frühjahrsmüdigkeit is much less fun than our “spring fever,” which is instead associated with increased vim, vigor, pep, and randiness.

6. Fernweh

Fernweh is the opposite of homesickness. It is the longing for travel, or getting out there beyond the horizon, or what you might call wanderlust.

7. Putzfimmel

Putzen means “to clean” and Fimmel is a mania or obsession. Putzfimmel is an obsession with cleaning. It is not unheard of outside of Germany, but elsewhere it is less culturally embedded and less fun to say.

8. Werthersfieber

An old-fashioned type of miserable lovesickness that was named “Werther’s fever” for the hero of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Poor young Werther suffers for the love of a peasant girl who is already married. Death is his only way out. A generation of sensitive young men brought made Werthersfieber quite fashionable in the late 18th century.

9. Ostalgie

Ostalgie is nostalgia for the old way of life in East Germany (ost means East). If you miss your old Trabant and those weekly visits from the secret police, you may have Ostalgie.

10. Zeitkrankheit

Zeitkrankheit is “time sickness” or “illness of the times.” It’s a general term for whatever the damaging mindset or preoccupations of a certain era are.

11. Weltschmerz

Weltschmerz or “world pain,” is a sadness brought on by a realization that the world cannot be the way you wish it would be. It’s more emotional than pessimism, and more painful than ennui.

12. Ichschmerz

Ichschmerz is like Weltschmerz, but it is dissatisfaction with the self rather than the world. Which is probably what Weltschmerz really boils down to most of the time.

13. Lebensmüdigkeit

Lebensmüdigkeit translates as despair or world-weariness, but it also more literally means “life tiredness.” When someone does something stupidly dangerous, you might sarcastically ask, “What are you doing? Are you lebensmüde?!”

14. Zivilisationskrankheit

Zivilisationskrankheit, or “civilization sickness” is a problem caused by living in the modern world. Stress, obesity, eating disorders, carpal tunnel syndrome, and diseases like type 2 diabetes are all examples.

15. Torschlusspanik

Torschlusspanik or “gate closing panic” is the anxiety-inducing awareness that as time goes on, life’s opportunities just keep getting fewer and fewer and there’s no way to know which ones you should be taking before they close forever. It’s a Zivilisationskrankheit that may result in Weltschmerz, Ichschmerz, or Lebensmüdigkeit.

This list first ran in 2015.

15 Obscure Words for Everyday Feelings And Emotions

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Given that it runs to more than a quarter of a million words, there’s a good chance that the English language will probably have the word you’re looking for. But when it comes to describing hard-to-describe feelings and emotions, much is made of the English language’s shortcomings: We either have to turn to foreign languages to describe situations like coming up with a perfect comeback when the moment has passed (esprit de l’escalier—thank you French), or else use resources like the brilliant, but sadly entirely fictitious, Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows or Meaning of Liff.

But so vast is the English language that words for feelings and emotions, and to describe the human condition, have actually found their way into the dictionary. So there’s no need to call that comeback esprit de l’escalier, because the word afterwit has been in use in English since the late 16th century. And here are 15 more obscure English words to describe feelings that are otherwise indescribable.

1. Croochie-Proochles

The superb Scots dialect word croochie-proochles means the feeling of discomfort or fidgetiness that comes from sitting in a cramped position (like, say, on an airplane).

2. Nikhedonia

You’re playing a game, and you suddenly realize that you’ve got it in the bag. Or you’re watching your favorite team play and, after a close-fought match, you see that they’re surely going to win. That’s nikhedoniathe feeling of excitement or elation that comes from anticipating success.

3. Alysm

Alysm is the feeling of restlessness or frustrated boredom that comes from being unwell. When you’re desperate to get on with your day but you’re so under the weather that you can’t bring yourself to get out of bed? That’s alysm.

4. Shivviness

A shive is a tiny splinter or fragment of something, or else a loose thread sticking out of a piece of fabric. And derived from that, shivviness is an old Yorkshire dialect word for the feeling of discomfort that comes from wearing new underwear—a word that surely needs to be more widely known.

5. Déjà-visité

Yes, strictly speaking this isn’t an English word, but like the more familiar déjà-vu before it, we have nevertheless had the foresight to borrow déjà-visité from French and add it to our dictionaries—it’s just not used as often as its more familiar cousin. It describes the peculiar sensation of knowing your way around somewhere you’ve never been before.

6. Presque-Vu

One more term we’ve borrowed from French is presque-vu. It literally means “almost seen,” and refers to that sensation of forgetting or not being able to remember something, but feeling that you could remember it any minute.

7. Gwenders

That tingling feeling you get in your fingers when they’re cold? That’s gwenders.

8. Misslieness

The Scots dialect word misslieness means “the feeling of solitariness that comes from missing something or someone you love.”

9. Euneirophrenia and 10. Malneirophrenia

Oneiros was the Greek word for a dream, and derived from that the English language has adopted a handful of obscure terms like oneirocriticism (the interpretation of dreams), oneirodynia (a night’s sleep disturbed by nightmares), and this pair. Euneirophrenia is the feeling of contentment that comes from waking up from a pleasant dream, while malneirophrenia is the feeling of unease or unhappiness that comes from waking up from a nightmare.

11. Lonesome-Fret

That feeling of restlessness or unease that comes from being on your own too long is lonesome-fret, an 18th/19th century dialect word defined as “ennui from lonesomeness” by the English Dialect Dictionary.

12. Fat-Sorrow

Sorrow alleviated by riches”—or, put another way, sadness alleviated by material things—is fat-sorrow. It’s a term best remembered from the old adage that “fat sorrow is better than lean sorrow.”

13. Horror Vacui

The dislike some people have of leaving an empty space anywhere—like on a wall or in furnishing a room—is called horror vacui, a Latin term originally adopted into English in the mid-19th century to refer to the tendency of some artists to fill every square inch of their paintings or artworks with detail.

14. Crapulence

When the word hangover just won’t do it justice, there’s crapulence. As the OED defines it, crapulence is a feeling of “sickness or indisposition resulting from excess in drinking or eating.”

15. Huckmuck

According to the English Dialect Dictionary, the confusion that comes from things not being in their right place—like when you’ve moved everything around while you’re cleaning your house—is called huckmuck.

This list first appeared in 2017.

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