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History of quirky phrase origins

 
 
Reply Tue 26 Jul, 2005 08:12 am
Did you know the origin of these quirky phrases?

In George Washington's days, there were no cameras. One's image was either sculpted or painted. Some paintings of George Washington showed him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while others showed both legs and both arms. Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be painted. Arms and legs are "limbs," therefore painting them would cost the buyer more. Hence the expression: "Okay, but it'll cost you an arm and a leg."

As incredible as it sounds, men and women took baths only twice a year! (May and October) Women kept their hair covered, while men shaved their heads (because of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford good wigs made from wool. The wigs couldn't be washed, so to clean them they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell, and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the term "big wig" Today we often use the term "here comes the Big Wig" because someone appears to be or is powerful and wealthy.

In the late 1700s, many houses consisted of a large room with only one chair. Commonly, a long wide board was folded down from the wall and used for dining. The "head of the household" always sat in the chair while everyone else ate sitting on the floor. Once in a while, a guest (who was almost always a man) would be invited to sit in this chair during a meal. To sit in the chair meant you were important and in charge. Sitting in the chair, one was called the "chair man." Today in business we use the expression or title "Chairman or Chairman of the Board."

Needless to say, personal hygiene left much room for improvement. As a result, many women and men had developed acne scars by adulthood. The women would spread bee's wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman's face she was told "mind your own bee's wax." Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the term "crack a smile." Also, when they sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt and therefore the "expression "losing face."

Ladies wore corsets which would lace up in the front. A tightly tied lace was worn by a proper and dignified lady as in "straight laced."

Common entertainment included playing cards. However, there was a tax levied when purchasing playing cards but only applicable to the "ace of Spades." To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, these people were thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren't "playing with a full deck."

Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what was considered important to the people. Since there were no telephones, TV's or radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars who were told to "go sip some ale" and listen to people's conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were dispatched at different times. "You go sip here" and "You go sip there." The two words "go sip" were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion and, thus we have the term "gossip."

At local taverns, pubs, and bars, people drank from pint-and quart-sized containers. A bar maid's job was to keep an eye on the customers and keep the drinks coming. She had to pay close attention and remember who was drinking in "pints" and who was drinking in "quarts," hence the term "minding your 'P's and Q's."

In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons. Those cannons fired round iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon, but how to prevent them from rolling about the deck? The best storage method devised was a square based pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four resting on nine, which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one problem...how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding or rolling from under the other. The solution was a metal plate called a "Monkey" with 16 round indentations. But, if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make "Brass Monkeys." Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannon balls would come right off the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, "Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey".
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Type: Discussion • Score: 1 • Views: 4,547 • Replies: 19
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Intrepid
 
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Reply Tue 26 Jul, 2005 08:20 am
Very interesting. These, however, are not all definitive. For example, there are at least 5 known possibilities for minding one's p's and q's. The stated definition being just one of them. In some cases, the actual origin is not known. Still, interesting reading.
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BumbleBeeBoogie
 
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Reply Tue 26 Jul, 2005 08:37 am
Intrepit
Intrepid wrote:
Very interesting. These, however, are not all definitive. For example, there are at least 5 known possibilities for minding one's p's and q's. The stated definition being just one of them. In some cases, the actual origin is not known. Still, interesting reading.


I agree that they are interesting even if I didn't make the author take an oath of truefulness.

BBB Smile
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boomerang
 
  1  
Reply Tue 26 Jul, 2005 08:51 am
I thought "minding your p's and q's" came from having to solve logic problems!

That was a fun read, BBB! Thanks.

Lately the phrase "take a powder" has been discussed in my circle of friends.

I think it means "I'm going to hurry out of here" but everyone else seems to think it means "I have to go to the bathroom".

Maybe someone who wanders into this thread (or who is already here!) can clear this up for me.
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BumbleBeeBoogie
 
  1  
Reply Tue 26 Jul, 2005 08:58 am
Take a powder
take a powder

Walter Hanig wrote:

How did take a powder come to mean 'leave'? Two theories proposed relate to women leaving to powder their noses or people leaving to take an aspirin powder. Thanks!

My own father often used to command me to take a powder. The expression means to 'leave quickly, usually avoiding something'. It's American-born and first appeared in print around 1920. Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, says that in Canada it means 'to disappear without paying the rent'. Its origin is unknown. It's not complete mystery, though. As a verb, the word powder has been used in England as slang for 'to rush, hurry' since the 17th century. It continued to be used that way into the 20th century in both England and America. American Tramp and Underworld Slang, published in 1931, says powder means 'to go away, to flee', as in "we better powder."

Take a powder in turn is probably an attenuated version of the expression, take a runout, or walkout, powder. This is from a 1934 book titled Suckers All: "The smartest guy in the office took a walk out powder this morning."

It doesn't seem to be a particularly popular expression anymore. A search of The New York Times revealed that take a powder appeared in that paper on just three occasions in the last two years. I did a search in The New York Post for those who might think The Times too stodgy. "Move over, Madonna," a November, 2000 story begins. "Take a powder, Pamela Anderson." Appealing as that sounds, the Post's writers used take a powder just five times in those same two years.

One theory has the expression coming from the idea of someone fleeing down a road and dust, or powder, being raised. The well-known expression powder your nose doesn't seem to be a serious candidate for the origin of take a powder. I found nothing at all about powdered aspirin. Eric Partridge gets the award for the most unconventional theory, befitting the title of his book. He says that take a powder comes from the idea of the "'moving' powers of a laxative powder." That is, you take a (laxative) powder, and you move, you really move.
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BumbleBeeBoogie
 
  1  
Reply Tue 26 Jul, 2005 08:59 am
BBB
Phrase origin index

http://members.aol.com/MorelandC/HaveOriginsIndex.htm
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boomerang
 
  1  
Reply Tue 26 Jul, 2005 09:05 am
Thanks BBB!
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syntinen
 
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Reply Wed 27 Jul, 2005 08:07 am
BBB, if you got those origins from that Moreland site, I should tell you that it appears to be "dead". I emailed the site about six months ago saying that most of the origins listed there are untrue, and giving the real ones, but I never got any response and haven't seen any changes made to the site.

Of the "origins" in your post these are totally and provably untrue:
- cost you an arm and a leg
- mind your own bee's wax / crack a smile / losing face
- gossip
- Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey
- minding your P's and Q's.


In the following origins there is a shred or two of truth, but the real facts have been badly garbled:
- big wig
- Chairman
- straight laced
- playing with a full deck


Not a single one of them is true as it stands.
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BumbleBeeBoogie
 
  1  
Reply Wed 27 Jul, 2005 09:12 am
syntinen
syntinen, thanks for the info. I suspect we will never know the true origins of some old sayings, but it's fun to read various versions, don't you think? And since it is not a life-changing test of knowledge, we can still wonder.

BBB
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Noddy24
 
  1  
Reply Wed 27 Jul, 2005 12:26 pm
Dogmatically speaking, colorful folk etymology spreads misinformation and further blurs the shifting boundaries between news/entertainment, fact/fancy/fiction and science/creationism.
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syntinen
 
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Reply Wed 27 Jul, 2005 12:29 pm
Quote:
it's fun to read various versions, don't you think?
No, I don't, not when the "various versions" are rubbish, and I reflect that every new post pushes the misinformation further round the globe. Don't you realise that innocent trusting people from Sacramento to Shanghai are reading these bits of nonsense as gospel truth and probably incorporating them into their school homework right now?
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panzade
 
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Reply Wed 27 Jul, 2005 12:47 pm
syntinen wrote:
Quote:
it's fun to read various versions, don't you think?
No, I don't, not when the "various versions" are rubbish, and I reflect that every new post pushes the misinformation further round the globe. Don't you realise that innocent trusting people from Sacramento to Shanghai are reading these bits of nonsense as gospel truth and probably incorporating them into their school homework right now?


You must be kidding Laughing
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Walter Hinteler
 
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Reply Wed 27 Jul, 2005 12:56 pm
Re: syntinen
BumbleBeeBoogie wrote:
syntinen, thanks for the info. I suspect we will never know the true origins of some old sayings, but it's fun to read various versions, don't you think? And since it is not a life-changing test of knowledge, we can still wonder.

BBB


Well, usually I look such up at Word Detective, which generally thought to be a good and precise website.

e.g.:
Quote:
The phrase "cost an arm and a leg," meaning to cost a great deal or an exorbitant amount, is simply a hyperbolic figure of speech comparing the cost of something to the grievous loss of two important limbs. There isn't really any "story" behind the phrase, other than the desire of whoever came up with the metaphor to impress the listener with the outrageous price of something. Unfortunately, as is often the case, we have no way of knowing exactly who coined the phrase, although it hasn't been around as long as you might think. Surprisingly, the earliest known use of "cost an arm and a leg" in print dates back only to 1956, in Billie Holiday's autobiography "Lady Sings the Blues," in which she writes "Finally she found someone who sold her some stuff for an arm and a leg." It is unlikely that Billie Holiday herself coined the phrase, but she may well have popularized it with her book.
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syntinen
 
  1  
Reply Wed 27 Jul, 2005 01:15 pm
Quote:
syntinen wrote:
Quote:
it's fun to read various versions, don't you think?
No, I don't, not when the "various versions" are rubbish, and I reflect that every new post pushes the misinformation further round the globe. Don't you realise that innocent trusting people from Sacramento to Shanghai are reading these bits of nonsense as gospel truth and probably incorporating them into their school homework right now?


You must be kidding


No, Panzade, I am not kidding. One of the sites that peddles this sort of stuff (about two-thirds of it is taken straight from the Life in the 1500s spoof that's all over the internet) actually features in several official "Educational Resources" listings. Innocent schoolchildren are actually directed towards this rubbish.

I think the least we on this board can do is not deliberately promote untruth, don't you agree?
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panzade
 
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Reply Wed 27 Jul, 2005 01:28 pm
syntinen wrote:
I think the least we on this board can do is not deliberately promote untruth, don't you agree?


I'm confused. If 90% of the sayings can't be attributed...How can we be misleading kids?
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Valpower
 
  1  
Reply Wed 27 Jul, 2005 02:03 pm
panzade wrote:
I'm confused. If 90% of the sayings can't be attributed...How can we be misleading kids?


By saying they are attributed. I'm with Syntinen on our responsibility as A2K members. I'm glad that these largely fictitious etymologies were posted, if only to see them be systematically debunked by this smart community. I can't be upset that they exist. I understand the free-market nature of information on the internet, but the lapses of vigilance that allow apocryphal information to be posted to "reputable" sites are unnerving.
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Noddy24
 
  1  
Reply Wed 27 Jul, 2005 02:09 pm
If you don't know the answer--and no one knows the answer--it is okay to make up the answer?

I say, "No."
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dora17
 
  1  
Reply Wed 27 Jul, 2005 11:34 pm
I'm sort of on the side of "don't spread these explanations around as though they're true" because I just barely stopped myself from immediately turning to my boyfriend and telling him all these neat "facts." Then I thought, wait, on second thought those sound like ridiculous crap! I don't think I want to go telling people about them and then feel stupid later... so I did a bit of snooping around and right away found most of them denounced as goofy internet rumors... I would have been at work tomorrow telling everyone about them too!
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syntinen
 
  1  
Reply Thu 28 Jul, 2005 01:07 pm
Panzade wrote:
Quote:
I'm confused. If 90% of the sayings can't be attributed...How can we be misleading kids?

Where do you pull that figure from, Panzade? 90% of them can be attributed, and not to the sort of stories that BBB's post gave. Here's a sample debunking -

Quote:
Common entertainment included playing cards. However, there was a tax levied when purchasing playing cards but only applicable to the "ace of Spades." To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, these people were thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren't "playing with a full deck."
0 Replies
 
Valpower
 
  1  
Reply Thu 28 Jul, 2005 01:49 pm
"A sandwich short of a picnic" actually comes from the 18th century practice of selling shorts in two pieces. A person who only bought one piece (one short) would...ahh, nevermind.
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