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The Delicious Origins of 11 Fruitful Expressions

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The fleshy, edible, seed-bearing parts of plants are a fruitful source of terms and phrases. We’ve picked eleven for you.

1. APPLE OF SOMEONE’S EYE

The expression “apple of the eye” goes back to Old English. It referred to the pupil of the eye, which was thought to be a solid, spherical body. As early as the 10th century, it was used figuratively to mean something precious. By the 14th century, the apple of someone’s eye was a greatly cherished person.

2. BIG APPLE

Now the Big Apple is synonymous with New York City. When the term arose in the early 20th century, though, it had a more general meaning: a thing considered the most significant of its kind. It could be a VIP—a “big shot.” In 1911, the Chicago Defender, a nationally circulated African American newspaper, reported, “George Hayes and the Clancy Twins are the ‘big apple on the tree’ this week.” In 1920, vaudeville performer and writer for the Defender “Ragtime” Billy Tucker wrote that he was “still in the ‘Big Apple,’ Los Angeles.” But it soon became clear that, at least in horse racing and show business, New York was the place to be: the Big Apple. For another bite of the apple, look here.

3. BANANAS

“Bananas,” especially in the phrases “go bananas” or “drive someone bananas,” means crazy or wild. Some sources say the expression may be influenced by “go ape,” but in earlier slang “banana oil” or “bananas,” as in “what a load of bananas,” meant nonsense, insincere or insane talk or behavior. Incidentally, other heaps of soft, stinky stuff also symbolize crazy talk. Fill in the blank: “What a load of ____!” You said rubbish, tripe or Tommyrot; didn’t you?

4. TOP BANANA

The top banana was originally the comedian in a stage act who got top billing. Later, the meaning extended to refer to the leader or most important person in any group. In 1958, the New York Times reported, “[Phil] Silvers…credits another burlesque comedian, Harry Steppe, with introducing the phrase ‘top banana’ into show business jargon in 1927... It rose out of a routine...in which three comedians tried to share two bananas.”

5. CHERRY PICKING

Cherry picking, the biased selection of statistics to support an argument, may relate to the hydraulic crane (popularly known as a cherry picker) that allows a worker lifted on platform to select the best fruit (and not to the person ahead of you in a buffet line with the same advantage).

6. SOUR GRAPES

In Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes,” a hungry fox leaps at, but cannot reach, a bunch of grapes. As he slinks away he tells himself they weren’t ripe yet and he doesn’t need any sour grapes. People who disparage something they seem to want but can’t get are said to turn the object of desire into sour grapes.

7. LEMON

Since the Middle Ages, “sour” has been used figuratively to mean disappointing or unpleasant, and since the beginning of the 20th century, lemons have symbolized that sourness. “Lemon” is so apt an emblem for a deal gone sour that it’s become a term of art in finance. A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford, 2013) defines “lemon” as “an unsatisfactory product, where quality cannot reliably be checked before purchase…The market for second-hand cars is a typical example of the market for lemons at work.”

8. SWEET LEMONS

“Sweet lemons” are the opposite of “sour grapes”; Pollyannas who make the best of a bad situation are said to have an attitude of sweet lemons.

9. GO PEAR-SHAPED

“Go pear-shaped” is chiefly British slang for go wrong or go awry. The expression arose in the Royal Air Force, perhaps referring to the distorted shape of an aircraft that has crashed nose-first.

10. PLUM

Since the early 19th century, “plum” has meant any desirable thing, a coveted prize, the pick of a collection, the choice part of a book, etc. Now the word is used as an adjective describing something prized, like a “plum assignment.” The expression may come, as one source suggests, from picking the tastiest bits out of a plum pudding. One caveat though: plum pudding was never made with the fruit we now call plums. As Stephen Dowell explains in A History of Taxation and Taxes in England (1884), dried grapes are called raisins when eaten uncooked, but “plums when they form an ingredient in the famous English plum pudding.”

11. GIVE SOMEONE THE RASPBERRY

When you give the raspberry you show your contempt by sticking out your tongue and making a rude noise by expelling air between your tongue and upper lip. The term raspberry comes not from the pink color of your tongue but from Cockney rhyming slang. “Raspberry” is short for “raspberry tart,” which rhymes with another rude bodily sound.

Sources: OED Online; Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and other sources contained in Oxford Reference Online, via Los Angeles Public Library

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Dollar Words: The Logophile Game That Has Math Geeks Hooked, Too
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Besides anagrams and palindromes, if there’s one thing wordplay aficionados like to mess around with, it’s the numerical value of the letters of the alphabet. Assigning numbers to letters—A = 1, B =2, C = 3, and so on, all the way through to Z = 26—opens the alphabet up to all kinds of mathematical and numerical games and trivia.

So add the value of ARM (32) to the value of BEND (25) and you get the value of ELBOW (57). Likewise, WHITE (65) plus HOUSE (68) equals GOVERNMENT (133). HAIR (8, 1, 9, 18) is a palindrome in this A to Z number system, as is INSULINS (9, 14, 19, 21, 12, 9, 14, 19). Add up the neighboring letter pairs in CAN (3 + 1, 1 + 14), and you’ll get DO (4, 15). The letters in FOURTEEN DOZEN add up to 14 dozen (168).

One more game that can be played with the numerical values of the alphabet is to search for words that total a specific value—the holy grail of which is precisely 100. Words that total 100 in this A to Z way are affectionately known as “dollar words.” They’re actually not all that rare in English, and a full list of them includes some fairly familiar words:

ANNUALLY BOUNDARY CULTURE DRIZZLE

MITTENS MOODIEST NASTILY OUTSET

PAYPHONE PORTLAND PREVENT PRIMARY

PRINTER SESSION SOURCES STRESS

STYLES SWIMMER TATTOOED THIRTY

TOILETS TURKEY UNDRESS USELESS

WHENEVER WHISKING WHISTLES WEDNESDAY

But given a set total in mind, that raises a couple of questions: What are the shortest and the longest dollar words in the dictionary?

Because 100 is a relatively large total for a short word (and because a lot of the highest value letters at the tail end of the alphabet are hard to find homes for, like V, X, and Z) shorter dollar words are fairly hard to come by. As a result, only a handful of 5-letter dollar words have ever been discovered, including:

BUZZY NUTTY PUSSY

In fact, as proof of just how many seldom-used letters lie at the end of the alphabet, if you were to change the numbers around so that A = 26, B =25, and so on through to Z = 1, the number of five-letter dollar words increases enormously:

ABBEY ACRID BACON BASAL

BEFOG BEGET CATCH CHAIN

CHALK CHINA DODGE ELIDE

FACET HENCE IMAGE LAGAN

LANCE MAGMA MEDAL NAKED

But shortest of all are two 4-letter words: acca, an Australian slang word for an academic, and caca, a childish word for poop.

Oppositely, it can be just as difficult looking for as long a dollar word as possible; the more letters a word has, the higher its total grows. But the relatively high frequency of the letters in the first few places of the alphabet means that there are quite a few lengthy dollar words, including some with as many as 12 letters:

BACKTRACKING COMMANDEERED

DEBAUCHERIES DESEGREGATED

INAPPLICABLE NON-BREAKABLE

Apparently longest of all is the 13-letter word adiabatically, a term from meteorology and thermodynamics referring to any process that occurs without a loss or gain of heat.

But why stop at adding up? Multiplying the numerical values of words leads to some considerably larger numbers—and some considerably higher targets.

Multiply the letters of the word TYPEY together, for instance, and you’ll end up with 1,000,000 (= 20 × 25 × 16 × 5 × 25). TEETHY multiplies to 2,000,000 (= 20 × 5 × 5 × 20 × 8 × 25). And PEYOTE multiplies to 3,000,000 (= 16 × 5 × 25 × 15 × 20 × 5). No word has yet been found that totals precisely 4,000,000 or 5,000,000, but some—like LURING (4,000,752) and JUICING (5,000,940)—have come tantalizingly close.

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Why Do Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Instead of ‘Football’?
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While more Americans than ever are embracing soccer, they can't even get the sport's name right, according to some purists. For most of the world, including the vast majority of Europe and South America, it’s football, fútbol, or some other variation. In the United States, Canada, Japan, and a few other stragglers, it’s firmly known as soccer, much to the annoyance of those who can't understand how a sport played with feet and a ball can be called anything else. So why the conflict?

According to a paper [PDF] by University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski, it all began in England in the early 1800s, when a version of the sport of football—based on a game played by “common people” in the Middle Ages—found its way into the recreational scene of some of the country’s most privileged schools. To give uniformity to the competitions between these schools and clubs, a set of standard rules was drafted by students in Cambridge in 1848. These rules would become further solidified when they were adopted by the more organized Football Association in 1863.

It wasn't long before variations of the sport began to splinter off—in 1871, the Rugby Football Union was founded, using Rugby School rules from the 1830s that allowed a player to run with the ball in their hands. This new take on the sport would be known as rugby football, or rugger, to separate itself from association football, the traditional feet-only version of the sport. From there, association football would get the nickname assoccer, leading eventually to just soccer. The addition of an "er" at the end of a word was something of a trend at the time, which is why we get the awkward transformation of association into assoccer and soccer.

The first recorded American football game was between the colleges of Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and used unique rules derived from those in both association and rugby football. Though this new, evolving game would just be called football in the U.S., elsewhere it would become known as gridiron football or American football, much in the way Gaelic football and Australian football have their own distinctions. Eventually in England, rugby football was shortened to just rugby, while association football simply became known as football. Which meant that now there were two footballs, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and neither side would budge. And Americans would begin referring to England's football by the previous nickname, soccer.

Despite the confusion nowadays, soccer was still a colloquial term used in England well into the 20th century—it rose in popularity following World War II before falling out of favor in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to Szymanski. In more recent years, it’s mostly been used in England in a strictly American context, like when publications and the media refer to U.S. leagues like Major League Soccer (MLS). Currently, soccer is mostly used in countries that have their own competing version of football—including the United States, Canada, and Australia.

While it boils the blood of certain traditionalists, soccer is by no means an Americanism—like the sport itself, this is purely an English export.

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