7 Everyday Phrases That Have Been Rephrased

EasternLightcraft/iStock via Getty Images
EasternLightcraft/iStock via Getty Images

It’s by no means rare for words to rework and reshape themselves over time, to the extent that they can end up with vastly different meanings and spellings compared to their original forms. So awful once meant the same as wonderful. A bully was originally a friend or a close companion. Jargon was once upon a time another word for the chattering of birds. And while adders and umpires were originally nadders and numpires, nicknames were eke-names. When changes like these happen to entire sayings and expressions, however, the differences between the original form and the form that eventually catches on can be even more surprising.

1. Cloud Nine

People who are extremely happy have been “on cloud nine” since the mid-1900s, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it wasn’t originally cloud nine that was the seat of all contentment, but “cloud seven.” The phrase itself probably began life as a spin off from the much earlier phrase seventh heaven (which dates back to the 14th century), but records have also been unearthed that mention everywhere from cloud eight to cloud 31. Why is it only cloud nine that’s survived today? No one really knows.

2. An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

The old adage that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” was originally a full-blown proverb: the Oxford English Dictionary has traced “eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread” back as far as 1866, but it was probably in use locally long before then. By the later 19th century, this had shortened to “an apple a day, no doctor to pay,” before the snappier version we know and use today emerged in the 1910s.

3. Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride

We know the phrase “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” thanks to a 1925 advertisement for Listerine mouthwash. It wasn’t always as pessimistic as it is today, however: The original phrasing was “often a bridesmaid” rather than “always.” There’s hope for everyone, it seems, so long as your breath doesn’t smell.

4. Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law

Possession hasn’t always been proverbially “nine-tenths of the law”—back in the 17th century, the phrase “11 points of the law” was just as common. No one is entirely sure what these “11 points” or “nine-tenths” initially were, but given what the phrase implies it’s presumed that it might once have been necessary to meet a certain number of criteria in order to legally prove your ownership of some disputed property, and it’s these criteria that were the original “11 points” involved.

5. Shoot Your Cuffs

If you “shoot your cuffs,” then you pull your shirt sleeves down so that they can be seen sticking out of your coat or jacket sleeves, although the phrase can also be used figuratively to mean “to smarten yourself up.” It dates back to the mid-19th century, when the original wording was “shoot your linen”; the more specific mention of “cuffs” emerged in the early 1900s.

6. Don’t Lose the Ship (for a Halfpennyworth of Tar)

Or, as you might also know it, “don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.” In either case, back in the 17th century the original phrasing was "lose the sheep" not the "ship," which is presumed to refer to the use of tar either to mark ownership of the sheep in a flock, or to cover up sores on the skin of livestock to stop them from being bothered by flies. But because ship and sheep sound so similar (and because tar can also be used to seal the timbers in leaking ships), the two forms quickly became confused and today the “ship” form has become the standard.

7. Gild the Lily

Along with being “in a pickle,” a “foregone conclusion,” and “what the dickens,” we owe the expression to "gild the lily" to William Shakespeare, who coined it in King John in 1595. You won’t find the form we use today in Shakespeare’s original speech, however:

Therefore, to be possessed with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,

To throw a perfume on the violet,

To smooth the ice, or add another hue

Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light

To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

King John (Act 4, Scene 2)

Included in a list of metaphorically unnecessary acts, the original phrase was “paint the lily,” while it was the “refined gold” that was being needlessly gilt (i.e. coated in gold). When this quotation became proverbial in the early 20th century, Shakespeare’s original wording remained intact (the OED has found a reference to “painting the lily” as recently in 1968 in the Encyclopedia Britannica), but soon the conflated form “gild the lily” became the standard and has remained in use every since.

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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