10 Everyday Phrases That Come from Printing

Printer's Error, Harper Collins // Type: Ross MacDonald // Photo by Rebecca Romney
Printer's Error, Harper Collins // Type: Ross MacDonald // Photo by Rebecca Romney

It surprises no one to say that the printing press has revolutionized the world. Even the word revolution, in the sense of overturning an entire established system, comes from the 1543 publication of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus. It used the orbits of the planets, called “revolutions,” to argue for a sun-centered system over an Earth-centered one. But the people behind the books, the ones who made these objects, left their own marks too.

With my co-author JP Romney, I’ve written an entire book about the flesh-and-blood humans behind the printed book called Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History. There’s more to that physical object we see most of the time only as a stand-in for the ideas it holds. Evidence of this lives even in our language: The following everyday phrases all came from the practical lives of people at work behind the scenes, printing books that would carry revolutionary ideas to the front lines.

1. OUT OF SORTS

This phrase has come to mean feeling a bit off, unwell, or grumpy—which is entirely appropriate because it comes from printers running out of type. A sort is an individually cast piece of type. For most of the history of print, purchasing type was expensive, and to save on costs, many printers would only keep enough on hand to get the job done. But sometimes this meant running out of type in the middle of a job, making you out of sorts.

2. MIND YOUR P’S AND Q’S

Image of a type case from Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, 1683 // Public Domain

This phrase means being on one’s best behavior in British English, and paying close attention in American English. Both versions make sense coming from the print shop. Setting type means placing each individual letter in backward, so that when the inked type is pressed into paper, the mirror image reads the right way forward.

This required a certain amount of focus from the workers who set the type (known as “compositors”), especially when it came to letters that look like mirror images of each other. In older type cases, each letter was kept in a segregated section to be picked out by the compositor setting the type. The lowercase p’s and q’s are right next to each other, just begging to be mixed up. That’s why it’s “mind your p’s and q’s,” not “mind your b’s and d’s,” which are not neighbors in the type case.

3. AND 4. UPPERCASE AND LOWERCASE

The type case clearly ruled the compositors’ lives. But more than that, it changed the way we think about the alphabet. Look back at that image of the type case from Moxon’s book published in 1683. The case is tilted up slightly. All the capital letters are on the top, or the uppercase. The ones in the lower part of the case are, you guessed it, all lowercase.

5. HOT OFF THE PRESS

The Linotype machine, from Appleton's Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics, 1892 // Public Domain

You can be forgiven for assuming that “hot” in “hot off the press” means the most up-to-date news. You’re right, but for the wrong reason. The paper coming off the press wasn’t literally hot, nor did the press itself heat up. It came from the “hot” type cast on the Linotype machine (above). Invented by the German-born American immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler, this machine allowed compositors to type on a keyboard what they wanted to print. As they went along, the machine would cast the type right there out of molten metal (mostly lead). Considering how time-consuming and expensive it was to have a lot of “cold” (previously cast) type around to set by hand, this was a major innovation. The machine got its name from the delighted reaction of the owner of the New York Tribune: “You have done it, you have produced a line o’ type.”

6. STEREOTYPE

An electrotype plate that has partially worn away; you can see the layers. Electrotypes are a type of stereotype plates with a layer of copper. Photo by Rebecca Romney.

In yet another example of font tyranny, the process of stereotyping sought to address the chronic scarcity of type supplies by making molds of already set type, then casting whole metal plates of the page for reprinting later. That way you could take apart the type (called “distributing”) and immediately use it for other projects. Stereotyping was expensive, but imagine that poor compositor having to re-set some ridiculously popular book for the 26th time. A book had to reach a certain level of demand to merit the high expense of stereotyping, but it was worth it.

Take the idea of creating thousands of exact printed copies from a single original setting of type just one step further and you get the modern meaning: assuming that every person from a single group is the exact same.

7. CLICHÉ

Here is another printing innovation that snuck into our everyday speech with a simple step from the literal to the figurative. Cliché is the French word for stereotyping. But instead of casting whole plates from metal, the French would cast frequently used phrases in one block, ready to be set among the individual letters to save time. These were phrases used so much they became cliché. The French verb clicher means “to click,” which imitated the sound made when striking metal to create stereotype plates.

8. TYPECASTING

When an actor is chosen for a role because she fits a certain profile, she has been typecast. “Type” and “cast”: those are two words you’ve seen a few times in this list. In one of the common processes for shaping metal such as type, you create a mold into which molten metal is poured. It then cools and hardens into the shape defined by the mold. This process is called casting, and the word typecast is believed to be a nod to it. The same metal shaping method is also where “to fit a mold” comes from.

9. MAKE AN IMPRESSION

While this figure of speech is a metaphor for doing something that makes you memorable, it’s all tied up in a word for “printing.” The Latin word imprimere means “to press into or upon.” In British English, rare book dealers tend to refer to a print run as an “impression” (whereas American dealers call it a “printing”). It also survives on a slightly different track in our word imprint. Whether you’re dressed to impress, making a good impression, or impressive in your bow staff skills, you’re borrowing a term that made it into English thanks to the printing press.

10. DITTO

Mid-century ad for DITTO, Inc. // Creative Pro

This word, used as a shorthand to repeat something that’s already been said, ultimately comes from the Italian word detto, the past participle of “to say.” But the word gained steam in the early 20th century with a duplicating machine produced by DITTO, Inc. The company’s logo? A single set of quotation marks, which we use to mean “ditto.”

Learn more about how laziness, feuds, and madness changed the world through print in our book Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History.

Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

iStock.com/Jan-Otto
iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

The Macabre Origins of 10 Death-Related Idioms

iStock.com/wwing
iStock.com/wwing

In 2016, Chapman University conducted a survey of 1511 Americans to gauge their concern over common fears, including crime, natural disasters, and clowns. Predictably, the notion of death was on the minds of many. Roughly 38 percent of respondents said that the idea of a loved one dying made them afraid or very afraid. Approximately 19 percent feared their own death.

That last statistic may speak less to fear of dying than our preference to simply not think about it. We often obscure or obfuscate our own mortality by ignoring it, joking about it, or cloaking it in a way that allows us to avoid confronting the reality that our bodies have expiration dates. For centuries, idioms have allowed us to dance around the topic, trading euphemisms for blunt language. Take a look at some of the more common expressions for death and their possible origins.

1. BUYING THE FARM

A scarecrow appears in a field
iStock.com/Smitt

A person who has ceased to be is sometimes said to have "bought the farm." This agricultural expression may have roots in the plight of military pilots in the 20th century. If a fighter jet crashed on a farm, the farm owner could theoretically sue the government for damages. In a roundabout way, the settlement might pay for the farmland, with the expired pilot having "bought" the property. Alternatively, the pilot's family might receive an insurance payment sufficient to pay off their farm mortgage. Another theory? The phrase stemmed from the idea of "the farm" as slang for a burial plot; "bought it" is also an older slang term for died.

2. DEAD AS A DOORNAIL

A door features a knocker and doornails
iStock.com/KenWiedemann

Why would anyone associate someone's health—or lack thereof—with carpentry? The earliest usage of someone being "dead as a doornail" dates to a 1350 translation of the anonymous 12th-century French poem Guillaume de Palerne. William Shakespeare used it in Henry VI, Part 2, written around 1591, and Charles Dickens in 1843's A Christmas Carol, writing that "Old Marley was as dead as a door nail," then going on to explain (via the narrator) that he wasn't quite sure why it wouldn't be "coffin nail" thanks to its status as "the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade." One possible explanation is that wooden doors were often secured with nails that were hammered through and then bent on the protruding side for added strength. Once this process, called "clenching," was performed, the nail was basically useless for any other purpose. The idiom may also refer to the effort involved in driving the nail through the door. Struck with blunt force by a hammer, the nail was effectively "dead" from the trauma.

3. CROSSING THE RAINBOW BRIDGE

A rainbow appears over the ocean
iStock.com/Damon_Moss

A forlorn announcement of a pet's passing sometimes includes mention of the beloved animal "crossing the rainbow bridge." While the phrase is common on social media, its origins date to the pre-Facebook 1980s. Three authors have all claimed to have written a poem using the language, which refers to a mythical connection between heaven and Earth. On the crossing, pet and owner are said to be reunited. The idea of a rainbow-colored crossing may have stemmed from Norse mythology and the Bifröst bridge, which connected Midgard and Asgard.

4. SIX FEET UNDER

A tombstone appears over a grave
iStock.com/homeworks255

As idioms go, this one is rather pointed. To die is to often be buried six feet underground. But why six feet? Blame the plague. In 1665, when the illness swept England, London's Lord Mayor ordered that corpses be buried no less than six feet deep in an effort to help limit the spread of the pestilence that eventually took more than an estimated 100,000 lives. There is no such regulation today, and graves can be as shallow as four feet.

5. PUSHING UP THE DAISIES

A daisy is seen in a graveyard
iStock.com/tommy_martin

This gardening-related euphemism takes a pleasant visual (daisies) to soften the subject (the rotting corpse residing underneath). The earliest incarnation of the phrase may have been to "turn one's toes to the daisies." A version appears in the story "The Babes in the Wood," in Richard Harris Barham's Ingoldsby Legends folklore collection of the 1840s, which used the expression "be kind to those dear little folks/When our toes are turned up to the daisies." Another variation, "I shall very soon hide my name under some daisies," was used by Scottish author George MacDonald in 1866.

6. BITE THE DUST

A dusty surface is pictured
iStock.com/sbayram

As much as Queen may deserve credit for popularizing the phrase ("Another One Bites the Dust"), they didn't coin it. The idea of sudden death resulting in a body collapsing into dust has origins that date back far earlier. "Lick the dust" can be traced to Psalms 72 of the King James version of the Bible ("They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him and his enemies shall lick the dust"), which actually sounds quite a bit more menacing. Translator Tobias Smollett used the altered "bite" version in the French novel The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, originally published by Alain-René Lesage between 1715 and 1735. It also appears in a 19th-century English translation of Homer's Iliad, though it's hard to ascertain whether the phrase should be attributed to Homer or to translator Samuel Butler.

7. KICK THE BUCKET

A bucket sits on top of a crate
iStock.com/mars58

Of all the verbal contortions to get around saying "this person has died," few are more ambiguous than "kick the bucket." One common—and very morbid—explanation is that a person committing suicide may opt to hang themselves by standing on a platform before kicking it away, creating tension on the rope around their neck. To achieve death, they have to literally kick the bucket. This presumes "bucket" was ever slang for a stool, or that it was the only handy stand-in for one. It's more likely the phrase stems from another definition of bucket. In 16th-century England, bucket also meant a yoke or frame from which to hang something. If an animal was being hung up for slaughter, it might kick the frame, or bucket, in an effort to free itself, or in a spasm after death.

8. SHUFFLING OFF THIS MORTAL COIL

A coil is seen in close-up
iStock.com/lionvision

This romanticized phrase is another of Shakespeare's contributions to the lexicon of death. In 1602's Hamlet, he wrote, "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause." At the time, coile or coil meant fuss, making the phrase a reference to leaving behind mortal turmoil.

9. LAID OUT IN LAVENDER

Lavender is spread out on a blank surface
iStock.com/olindana

Another seemingly pleasant descriptor, to be "laid out in lavender" is to prepare a body for viewing or burial, presumably by using a pleasant smell to mask the foul odor of decomposition. The idiom takes a cue from "laid up in lavender," or the practice of storing clothes in lavender to keep them from being damaged by insects. The phrase denoting death may have first appeared in a 1926 story in the Syracuse Herald newspaper, with a book reviewer noting that a detective story featured a family "laid out in lavender."

10. SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES

A woman sleeps next to a fish
iStock.com/yulkapopkova

A staple of both mob stories and parodies of mob stories, to "sleep with the fishes" is to hint that a rival has been murdered and possibly tossed into a body of water. Luca Brasi famously met this fate in 1972's The Godfather. But the phrase can be dated back to 1836 and to German villagers who wanted to warn off a fly fisherman. As Edmund Spencer describes in Sketches of Germany and the Germans, the villagers threatened the man with violence, an act Spencer worded as a warning that "he would sleep with the fishes." And, yes, fish do sleep, though not in any conventional sense. Without eyelids to droop, they tend to relax their tails and enter a state of reduced arousal.

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