Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Origins of Common Terms and Phrases (That Are Actually Really Weird)

     Language is one of my favorite things in the world but there are some things that we say today that honestly don't make any sense whatsoever. I decided to do some research and find the origins of some of the most absurd phrases and terms and now I shall share my knowledge with you.

1.     Dead as a doornail
When a doornail is used, both ends are flattened to clinch the wood , after this the nail was unusable and, therefore, dead.
William Shakespeare used the word in King Henry VI:
“Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.”

2.            2.   Mad as a hatter
This one is my absolute favorite. Apparently mercury was used to make hats a long, long time ago and exposure to it can aggressiveness, mood swings, and anti-social behavior. And then, of course, the character in Alice in Wonderland known as the Mad Hatter was a reference to this peculiar saying. It’s quite ingenious, if you ask me. I love this because I can just imagine a bunch of hat makers walking around everywhere like zombies because of mercury poisoning. It makes me laugh.

1.           3.    Best thing since sliced bread
The origin is actually very literal. For a long time, people could only buy unsliced loaves and had to cut it themselves with a knife. Then somebody came up with the brilliant idea of a bread-slicer and the rest was history. Can you image having to cut your own bread? Parish the thought!

    4.      Right as rain
This expression has to do with the idea that rain falls down in a straight line and it compares this to correctness of judgment or something like that. That sounds like nonsense because I’ve definitely seen rain fall sideways before.

    5.       Mum’s the word
I personally love this saying, it makes me smile. You may think that “mum” is a reference to “mother” but it’s really a reference to the humming sound one makes with a closed mouth. So, in essence, “mum” is the only thing you’ll be saying about the thing that you were told to keep secret. 

6.       Scott Free
Some people believe that this term is a reference to Dred Scott, an African American slave  who was made free by his owners, the Blow family. (what an awful last name by the way).
But another idea is it’s a reference to the word ‘scot’ which is a Scandinavian word for tax or payment. It came to the United Kingdom as a form of redistributive tax which was a form of municipal poor relief. Some people believe that to be “scott free” meant to not have to pay other people’s taxes. If that’s the case, I wish I could say that I was scott free.

     7. Upper Hand
One of the theories about the origin of this saying is the method that children use to select sides for impromptu baseball games. One team captain to grab the bat at the bottom, then the other captain takes hold above the first's hand and they progress hand over hand until the top is reached - the one who’s hand is on the top of the bat has the 'upper hand' and gets the first choice of player for their team.

8.   Break a Leg
It is said that this phrase came about because it is supposedly bad luck to wish good luck to an actor. Since actors can be very superstitious, it became good luck to wish an actor bad luck. Therefore, to wish someone bad luck will inevitably bring the actor good luck.   
However, another theory is that the term “break a leg” also means “make an effort.” Ex. “Do your best or break a leg trying.”

7.            9.  Fast Asleep
Today, the word “fast” commonly means quickly or speedy but it derived from the German word “fest” and means “not easily moved.” The word “fast” is used in the term “fast asleep” as it is used in, “the ship was fast aground.” This term was used in Macbeth:
“Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upon't, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep.”
        10.  What The Dickens
This phrase has absolutely nothing to do with Charles Dickens. The word “dickens” is actually a a euphemistic word for the devil. It was used in the Merry Wives of Windsor.
“I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of.”
             11. Close, but no cigar.
In the 20th century, cigars were commonly given out as a prize at carnivals. When someone played a game and lost, he would be told, “close, but no cigar.” There’s no concrete evidence for this but it makes a lot of sense. All I want to know is if there were other prizes for children or if they just handed out cigars to kids when they won a game. I guess I'll never know.

Which origin most surprised you? Are there any other terms or phrases that you'd like to know the origin of? I want to hear from you!