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.

Can You Pick the Body Parts Described by the Adjectives?

The History Behind 7 New York City Street Names

deberarr/istock via getty images
deberarr/istock via getty images

Modern life means constantly rushing to get places, especially in New York. Whether it’s the daily grind to get to work or the rush to hit happy hour, residents are probably concentrating more on getting somewhere than carefully considering the details of their surroundings.

But next time you're in New York—or if you're a resident already—try looking up from your phone to take a peek at the street names above you. Along with your more common numbered designations and things like "Park Avenue," you’ll notice the city has some pretty strange denominations. Here are seven of the more eye-catching, and the brief history behind their names.

1. Asser Levy Place

Tucked between the generically named 23rd and 25th streets, Asser Levy Place stands out like a sore thumb. Located not far from Stuyvesant Town, this unassuming street bears the name for a pretty prominent historical figure.

Said to have been born in what is now Poland and Lithuania, Asser Levy was one of the first Jewish settlers to land in the predominantly Dutch New Amsterdam. The governor at the time, Peter Stuyvesant, was “violently opposed” to the freshly emigrated Jewish community, unhappy at the fact that they were now allowed to trade and reside within the area [PDF]. Levy was not only the first kosher butcher in the land but also the first Jew to gain rights of citizenship in the country. Additionally, Levy donated funds to help New York fight the British Crown, and eventually took up arms against the British himself.

2. Maiden Lane

The history behind Maiden Lane’s designation is just as picturesque as it sounds. Known to Dutch settlers as Maagde Paatje (or “maiden path”), this portion of land once ran alongside a brook where women and girls would wash clothing. There are darker associations with the area too, though: Maiden Lane also saw a brutal slave revolt in 1712.

Today the street is one of many centers of commerce for the city, although the concrete still holds remnants of the city’s more ornate past. Passersby can take a look at the Barthman Clock, a 19th-century timepiece embedded into the intersection of Maiden Lane and Broadway.

3. Mott Street

Located primarily in the heart of Chinatown, Mott Street’s modern associations aren’t the most flattering. Once the site of multiple crime scenes and illegal activities, the street has garnered a somewhat seedy reputation over time.

But before it became affiliated with the seedy underbelly, Mott Street had patriotic associations. Joseph Mott, the street’s namesake, owned a tavern used as headquarters for General George Washington in 1775. His descendants proved dedicated to equally worthy causes, with Dr. Valentine Mott rising to prominence as one of America’s most influential surgeons.

4. Pearl Street

Before the concrete jungle fully took over, the streets of New York were dominated by oysters. Due to their bountiful number, the shells of shucked clams would pile up into what archaeologists call middens—large piles of domestic waste that have survived the centuries. One particularly large heap was located on the modern-day Pearl Street, giving rise to the mollusk-related moniker. Oddly, however, these oysters were not the pearl-producing kind—although they dominated a good portion of the New York market for quite some time.

5. Minetta Lane

Speaking of water-related items, did you know a once-babbling creek was paved over by one of the city’s more famous streets? That’s right: Known to the Dutch as Mintje Kill or “small stream,” Minetta Brook was “[a] brisk little brook full of trout,” according to one 19th century source, that was covered by the city’s expansion around the 1820s. It was also where a community of “half free” African Americans resided in the 17th century—former enslaved people that were allowed to live on the land by paying annual fees.

6. MacDougal Street

MacDougal Street is known for its vibrant nightlife and for hosting the early days of Bob Dylan’s career. But it also holds claim to a not-so-well-known spelling error.

The street was named for one Alexander Mcdougall, a Scotsman who emigrated to what would become the United States as a child in 1740 and settled in New York. Mcdougall made a name for himself in the mercantile trade and shipping business and was an early defender of American independence. He openly voiced his opinions against British rule, and was even imprisoned for passing out revolutionary pamphlets. His colorful life saw him commissioned as a colonel in the First New York Infantry during the Revolutionary War, become a member of the Continental Congress, and rise as the first president of the Bank of New York. However, how or why the second L in his name was dropped in the naming of the street remains a mystery.

7. Margaret Corbin Drive

Located at the city’s far northern tip, Margaret Corbin Drive is named for a young Pennsylvanian woman whose tough life molded her into a tougher lady. Her childhood saw the death of her father by Native Americans and her mother’s capture soon after; years later, the British killed her husband during the Battle of Fort Washington. Margaret, who was standing by his side at the time, quickly took his place in the conflict by handling his cannon—receiving several bullets as a result.

The U.S. government recognized her bravery by providing her disability compensation (as well as rum and whiskey rations) for many years. Although sometimes remembered as a “haughty and disagreeable eccentric,” the affectionately called “Captain Molly” is forever memorialized by the street running along the site where her brave acts took place.

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