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

chimp eating banana
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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.”

11 Versions of “Average Joe” From Other Countries

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santypan/iStock via Getty Images

Average Joe, Joe Schmo, John Doe. He’s bland and average. Faceless, but not nameless. Every country needs a way to talk about just “some guy.” Here’s what 11 countries call that typical guy, who might have no specific qualities, but is still “one of our own.”

1. Germany: Otto Normalverbraucher

Literally, Otto “normal consumer."

2. China: Zhang San, Li Si

This translates to “Three Zhang, Four Li”—a reference to some of the most popular Chinese surnames.

3. Denmark: Morten Menigmand

"Morton Everyman."

4. Australia: Fred Nurk

Sounds pretty normal to me.

5. Russia: Vasya Pupkin

With a name like that, it’s hard not to be a typical schmo.

6. Finland: Matti Meikäläinen

Meikäläinen looks like a typical Finnish surname, but it also means “one of us.”

7. Sweden: Medelsvensson

Just your average Svensson.

8. France: Monsieur Tout-Le-Monde

“Mr. Everyone.” Also goes by Jean Dupont.

9. UK/New Zealand: Joe Bloggs

Still an average Joe (but can also be a Fred).

10. Italy: Mario Rossi

In Italy they just use a common name.

11. Latin America: Juan Pérez

The same is true in various Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America.

A version of this list first ran in 2014.

15 Pairs of Words That Surprisingly Come From the Same Source

Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Lena_Zajchikova/iStock via Getty Images

We take for granted that many English words have counterparts that sound related, but aren’t. Even though know and no sound the same, their meanings are so different we assume they have different etymological sources (which the spelling differences also suggest). However, sometimes words we might not expect to have anything in common historically do in fact go back to the same source. They’re called etymological doublets; here are 15 of them.

1. Flour/Flower

Flour, just like flower, came from French fleur. It was named that way because the part of the plant used to make it was considered the “flower of the grain,” the best part of it, taking away all the chaff and other impurities.

2. Lobster/Locust

Both go back to Latin locusta, for locust, which also turned into the French langouste and Old English lopustre. The lobster is the locust of the sea.

3. Inch/Ounce

Though one measures length and the other weight, they both go back to Latin uncia, meaning a twelfth part. The original ounce was 1/12th of a pound.

4. Of/Off

Of and off were once the exact same word but in a stressed vs. unstressed pronunciation. It wasn’t until the 17th century that they developed different uses to the point where they were considered different words.

5. Etiquette/Ticket

Etiquette was a French word for a note attached to something that listed its contents. It was borrowed into English as ticket and into Spanish as etiqueta, where it came to be associated with the listed rules of protocol for the Spanish royal court. It then came back into French and English with the social protocol meaning.

6. Costume/Custom

Both come from Latin consuetudinem, meaning "accustomed to," or "habituated." Both referred to the general habits of a group, including how they dress, among other things. Costume wasn’t explicitly connected to just the dress sense until the 1800s.

7. Species/Spices

Both come from Latin specie, for "appearance" or "form." Spice came into English first, from Old French espice. Species was later borrowed directly from Latin.

8. Reward/Regard

In Anglo-Norman, reward and regard were alternate pronunciations of the same thing. While the g version took on the senses of "to look at," "give attention to," and also "to merit, esteem, or respect," the w version settled into the current sense of giving something on merit.

9. Dainty/Dignity

The Latin word dignus meant "worthy." While dignity refers to a sense of "worthy" that includes serious notions of honor, respect, and rank, in dainty, dignus lives on in the sense of being worthy for being delightful, precious, and pleasing.

10. Naïve/Native

Both come from Latin nativus, meaning innate, natural. Naïve is "natural" in the sense of being unspoiled and native is an innate belonging to an origin.

11. Shirt/Skirt

The ancestor of the Old English scyrte developed into a word for the upper part of an undergarment in many Germanic languages, but it’s not entirely clear how it also developed into the skirt word for a lower garment in English.

12. Tradition/Treason

Tradition is from the Latin tradere, for the act of handing over or handing down. Treason also comes from tradere, with the sense of handing over or delivering. The tray in betray also goes back to this sense of tradere.

13. Tulip/Turban

Both are approximations of the Persian word for turban, dulband, which a tulip was said to resemble.

14. Maneuver/Manure

Maneuver comes from the Latin manu + operari, to work by hand. But so does manure, which was originally a verb meaning to "till the land."

15. Grammar/Glamour

Grammar goes all the way back to Latin and Greek, where it referred to all aspects of the study of literature. In the Middle Ages, it came to be associated with just the linguistic parts, and particularly with the study of Latin. The fancy, educated class studied Latin, and also things like magic and astrology, so the word grammar sometimes referred to that aspect too. A mispronounced version, glamour, went on to stand for the magical, enchanting quality we use it for today.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

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