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 Facts About Talk Like A Pirate Day

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Ahoy, me hearties! As many of you know, September 19 is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, an annual phenomenon that’s taken the world by storm, having been observed by every continent, the International Space Station, and even the Oval Office since it first made headlines back in 2002. So let’s hoist the Jolly Roger, break out the rum, and take a look back at the holiday’s timber-shivering history.

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CONCEIVED OF ON D-DAY.

Talk Like a Pirate Day creators John Baur and Mark Summer (who’ve since acquired the nicknames “Ol’ Chumbucket” and “Cap’n Slappy,” respectively) created the holiday while playing racquetball on June 6, 1995—the 51st anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. Out of respect to the battle’s veterans, a new observance date was quickly sought.

2. SEPTEMBER 19TH ALSO HAPPENS TO BE THE BIRTHDAY OF THE CO-CREATOR'S EX-WIFE.

“[September 19th was] the only date we could readily recall that wasn’t already taken up with Christmas or the Super Bowl or something,” the pair later claimed. Summers claims to harbor no ill will toward his former spouse, who has since stated, “I’ve never been prouder to be his ex-wife!

3. PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING HUMORIST DAVE BARRY IS RESPONSIBLE FOR POPULARIZING THE HOLIDAY.

Dave Barry was so smitten with the holiday after having been introduced to it via email in early 2002 that he dedicated an entire column to its publicity that September, turning an inside joke into a global sensation. He later went on to make a cameo appearance in one of Baur and Summers’s buccaneer-themed music videos in 2011 (look for him in the video above at the 3:25 mark).

4. REAL PIRATES SPOKE A WIDE VARIETY OF DIALECTS.

Despite some extensive “English-to-Pirate” dictionaries that have cropped up all over the Internet the idea that all pirates shared a common accent regardless of national origin is historically absurd, as National Geographic pointed out in 2011.

5. ACTOR ROBERT NEWTON IS HAILED AS THE “PATRON SAINT” OF TALK LIKE A PIRATE DAY.

So where did the modern “pirate dialect” come from? Summers and Baur credit actor Robert Newton's performance in Treasure Island (1950) and have accordingly dubbed him the “patron saint” of their holiday. Tasked with breathing life into the scheming buccaneer, Newton simply exaggerated his native West Country accent and the rest is history.

6. BAUR'S FAMILY WAS FEATURED ON A PIRATE-THEMED EPISODE OF WIFE SWAP.

The reality show’s highly-anticipated 2006 season premiere pitted the Baurs (in full pillaging regalia) against a family which, according to John’s wife Tori (a.k.a. “Mad Sally”), “behaved as though ‘fun’ was something that had to be pre-packaged for their protection.”

7. BAUR WAS ALSO ON JEOPARDY!

Baur was described to the audience as “a writer and pirate from Oregon” in his 2008 appearance. “I didn’t win,” Baur said, “but the introduction made Alex blink.”

8. TALK LIKE A PIRATE DAY HAS BECOME A CORNERSTORE OF THE PASTAFARIAN MOVEMENT.

Bobby Henderson, founder of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, cited Earth’s dwindling pirate population as the clear source of global warming in his 2005 open letter to the Kansas school board which established the religion. Since then, Talk Like A Pirate Day has been observed by devout Pastafarians worldwide. 

9. A FLORIDA MAYOR ONCE IGNITED A LOCAL CONTROVERSY FOR MAKING AN OFFICIAL TALK LIKE A PIRATE DAY PROCLAMATION.

In 2012, Lake Worth, Florida Mayor Pam Triolo lightheartedly urged her constituents to embrace the holiday last year, writing, “The City … is known to possess a spirit of independence, high spirits, and swashbuckling, all traits of a good pirate.” Her actions were criticized by the city’s former commissioner, Jo-Ann Golden, who took offense to the association with murderous seamen.

10. DAY OF THE THE NINJA WAS CREATED IN RESPONSE TO TALK LIKE A PIRATE DAY.

Not to be outdone by their hated rivals, the pro-ninja community was quick to execute the first annual Day of the Ninja on December 5, 2002. For Summers and Baur’s take on the warring factions, see the clip above.

11. ASTRONAUTS ONCE CELEBRATED TALK LIKE A PIRATE DAY ABOARD THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

In a 2012 interview, Summers recalled being “informed that the astronauts on the International Space Station were awakened to ‘A Pirate’s Life For Me' and joined in the pirate talk from space.”

12. PRESIDENT OBAMA ONCE CELEBRATED WITH A COSTUMED BUCCANEER IN THE OVAL OFFICE.

In 2012, Barack Obama tweeted this image on Talk Like a Pirate Day with the caption “Arr you in?”

13. A CONGRESSMAN LATER USED THE HOLIDAY TO SLAM OBAMA'S TAX PLAN.

In 2011, Florida’s 12th congressional district representative Dennis Ross used the festivity as a political punchline after Obama made a speech detailing his tax plan, tweeting, “It is TALK like a pirate day … not ACT like one. Watch ye purses and bury yr loot, the taxman cometh.”

14. IT'S AN OFFICIAL HOLIDAY IN THE STATE OF MICHIGAN.

On June 4, 2013, state senator Roger Kahn’s proposal to grant Talk Like A Pirate Day official acknowledgement from the Michigan government was formally adopted, to the chagrin of some dissenting landlubbers. 

15. TALK LIKE A PIRATE, GET A FREE DEEP FRIED TWINKIE.

Rejoice, sweet-toothed scallywags: There's free grub to be had on Talk Like a Pirate Day. Talk like a pirate at your local Long John Silver's, and you'll get a free deep fried Twinkie. Dress like a pirate and you'll get a free Fish N' Fry. (Though you'll want to make sure your local restaurant is participating before putting on your best eye patch.)

This story originally ran in 2013.

10 Words and Phrases That Came From TV Shows

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

Television can be a hotbed of creativity (or mediocrity, depending on who you ask). But it's not just characters and storylines writers are coming up with—they also coin words. Here are 10 surprising words that were invented thanks to TV.

1. POINDEXTER

While this term for a studious nerd might seem very 1980s, it actually comes from a cartoon character introduced on TV in 1959. In the series Felix the Cat, Poindexter is the feline’s bespectacled, genius nephew, supposedly named for Emmet Poindexter, the series creator’s lawyer.

2. EYE CANDY

This phrase meaning any thing or person that offers visual appeal but not much substance originally referred to such a feature of a TV program. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it first appeared in 1978 issue of a Louisiana newspaper called The Hammond Daily Star: “Sex … is more blatant ... ‘Eye candy,' as one network executive calls it.” Ear candy is slightly earlier, from the title of a 1977 album by Helen Reddy, while arm candy is later, from 1992.

3. RIBBIT

Think frogs have always been known to say “ribbit”? Think again: According to the OED, this onomatopoeia might have originated on a TV show in the late-1960s. While we can’t say for sure that absolutely no one was making this frog sound before then, the earliest recorded usage found so far (according to linguist Ben Zimmer) is from a 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mel Blanc voiced a character called Ribbit the Frog. This predates the OED’s earliest entry, which is from a 1968 episode of the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour: “That’s right. Ribit! .. I am a frog.”

4. SORRY ABOUT THAT

You've probably used this expression of regret more than once in your life, but did you know it was popularized by Get Smart? It's one of the many catchphrases from the late 1960s TV show. Others include “missed it by that much” and “the old (so-and-so) trick.”

5. CROMULENT

Cromulent is a perfectly cromulent word, as far as the OED is concerned. This adjective invented on The Simpsons means “acceptable, adequate, satisfactory.” Other OED words the denizens of Springfield popularized are meh (perhaps influenced by the Yiddish “me,” meaning “be it as it may, so-so,” from 1928 or earlier), d’oh (the earliest recorded usage is from a 1945 British radio show), and embiggen, which first appeared in an 1884 publication by English publisher George Bell: “Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages? … The people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.”

6. FIVE-O

The OED’s earliest citation of this slang term for the police is from a 1983 article in The New York Times, although it was probably in use long before that. The moniker comes from Hawaii Five-O, which premiered in 1968. In the show, five-o refers to a particular police unit and apparently was named in honor of Hawaii being the 50th state.

7. GOMER

While the word gomer has been around since the year 1000 (referring to a Hebrew unit of measure), the sense of someone stupid or inept comes from the inept titular character in the 1960s show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. It’s also a derogatory name among medical professionals for a difficult patient, especially an elderly one.

8. COWABUNGA

Sure, the 1960s surfing slang might have regained popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s due to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series, but it originated way before then. Chief Thunderthud, a character on the 1950s children’s show Howdy Doody would use it as faux Native American language. After that, it somehow made its way into surfer slang, hence becoming a catchphrase of Michelangelo, the hard-partying, surfing ninja turtle.

9. HAR DE HAR

The next time you want to laugh in a sarcastic, old-timey way, thank Jackie Gleason for popularizing har de har via his iconic 1950s show, The Honeymooners.

10. SPAM

So how in the world did spam, originally the name of a canned ham, come to mean junk email or to inundate with junk emails or postings? Chalk it up to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The food Spam (which stands for either “spiced ham” or “shoulder of pork and ham”) was invented during the Great Depression in the late 1930s. Fast forward 40-some-odd years and the British sketch comics were singing incessantly about it. This apparently was the inspiration for the computer slang that came about in the early 1990s.

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