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Derivation of Phrases

New Page -- 22 February 2004


Etymology, as the derivation and history of words, can include phrases as well. "Up a creek without a paddle" readily springs to mind -- if only because it's such a common malady nowadays. It originally referred to the idea to being sent up the river to prison -- the river being the Hudson flowing through New York City and the "up" prison being Sing Sing Penitentiary at Ossining. [1]

A few other classics include:

"Passing the buck" (i.e. shifting responsibility) -- It was once customary in card games to pass an item called a buck, from player to player to indicate whose turn it was to deal. If a player did not wish to assume the responsibility, he would “pass the buck” to the next player. Harry Truman then coined the term, "The Buck Stops Here" -- an indicator of his sense of being unable to pass the buck any further than the Presidency of the United States.

“In the limelight” (used for people in the public eye) -- Invented in 1825, limelight was used in lighthouses and stage lighting by burning a cylinder of lime which produced a brilliant light. In the theater, performers on stage “in the limelight” were seen by the audience to be the center of attention.

“On cloud nine” (when someone is feeling great!) -- Types of clouds are numbered according to the altitudes they attain, with nine being the highest cloud. If someone is said to be on cloud nine, that person is floating well above worldly cares.

Some other tidbits of vast interest include:

The use of the word, "Mayday" to call for help when ships and aircraft are in trouble -- By some reckoning, this comes from the French word m'aidez -- meaning “help me” -- and is pronounced “mayday.” An alternate version is that May first is May day, a day when the great goddess takes over from the god (for the next six months), and thus calling "mayday" is to appeal for help from the goddess.

Zero scores in tennis are called “love” -- In France, where tennis first became popular, a big, round zero on scoreboard looked like an egg and was called l'oeuf, which is French for “egg”. When tennis was introduced in the US, Americans pronounced it “love.” [Americans have, according to the French, never been good at speaking French.]

Coin banks are often shaped like pigs -- Long ago, dishes and cookware in Europe were made of a dense, orange clay called pygg. When people saved coins in jars made of this clay, the jars became know as “pygg banks”. When an English potter misunderstood the word, he made a bank that resembled a pig. And it caught on.

A golfer's assistant is called a “caddie” -- When Mary, later Queen of Scots, went to France as a young girl (for education & survival) Louis, King of France, learned that she loved the Scot game golf. So he had the first golf course outside of Scotland built for her enjoyment. To make sure she was properly chaperoned (and guarded) while she played, Louis ordered cadets from a military school to accompany her. Mary liked this a lot and when she returned to Scotland (her return not a very good idea in the long run as it turned out) she took the practice with her. In French the word cadet is pronounced “ca-day” & the Scots bastardized it into caddie. [It's what the Scots are good at.]

People clink their glasses before drinking a toast -- It used to be common for someone to try to kill an enemy by offering him a poisoned drink. To prove to a guest that a drink was safe, it became customary for a guest to pour a small amount of his drink into the glass of the host. Both men would drink it simultaneously. When a guest trusted his host, he would then touch - or clink - the host's glass with his own.

Then there's the strange world of totally pointless trivia:

Ever wonder why dimes, quarters and half dollars have notched edges, while pennies and nickels do not? The US Mint began putting notches on the edges of coins containing gold and silver to discourage holders from shaving off small quantities of the precious metals. Dimes, quarters and half dollars are notched because they used to contain silver. Pennies and nickels aren't notched because the metals they contain are not valuable enough to shave.

Men's clothes have buttons on the right while women's clothes have buttons on the left. When buttons were invented, they were very expensive and worn primarily by the rich. Because wealthy women were dressed by maids, dressmakers put the buttons on the maid's right. Since most people are right-handed, it is easier to push buttons on the right through holes on the left. And that's where women's buttons have remained since.

Finally, why do you suppose that X's at the end of a letter signifies kisses? In the Middle Ages, when many people were unable to read or write, documents were often signed using an X. Kissing the X represented an oath to fulfill obligations specified in the document. The X and the kiss eventually became synonymous.

Thus, in parting, we can only say: XXXXXX!



[1] Robert Hendrickson, The Facts of File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Checkmark Books, 2000.


Language           The Art of Writing         Etymology

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