The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


January 11, 2013

Tracking down the origins of our cliche verbage

The origin of clichés and other familiar phrases has always intrigued me.

The colorful folk on my mother’s side of the family hailed from Scotland and Ireland, both of which seem to have engendered a veritable lexicon of such descriptions.

Here are some that I’ve been able to trace to their original sources.

“Not dry behind the ears” suggests an innocent and unsophisticated as a babe. According to the works of Charles Earl Funk, including his best-selling book titled “A Hog on Ice and Other Curious Expressions,” the saying that came directly from the farm, where many others have also arisen, for it alludes to a newly born animal, as a colt or a calf, on which the last spot to become dry after birth is the little depression behind either ear.

“In the bag” is another popular expression used throughout Appalachia and beyond. With success assured, it suggests that it’s “all over but the shouting” (success is so certain that applause only is lacking). The saying is relatively new, having originated since about 1920. “All wrapped up” is a similar expression for summing up or alluding to merchandise merely awaiting delivery.

“To ride a high horse; on one’s high horse” originated in the 14th century, suggesting royal pageant persons of high rank who were mounted on “high horses,” meaning that they rode the so-called great horses, or heavy chargers used in battle or tournament. Hence, the use of such a horse was presumptive evidence that its rider was, or considered himself to be, a person of superiority or arrogance.

“To feather one’s nest” is to provide for one’s comfort, especially for comfort in later life by amassing wealth. The import is to the practice of many birds which, after building their nests, pluck down from their breasts to provide a soft lining that will be comfortable during the long hours of setting upon eggs.

“To know beans” is usually in the negative; one who doesn’t know beans is appallingly ignorant or is wholly unacquainted with the subject under discussion.

A “one-horse town” is American; we use the expression disparagingly to designate a town of such limited resources, so sleepy that one horse might be able to do all its necessary transportation.

“Kangaroo court” is rarely heard of except in jails or similar institutions where a mock court, independent of regular procedure, is set up by the inmates to try a fellow prisoner for some alleged offense. Sometimes such courts are set up merely for amusement, as diversions against the tedium of imprisonment, and are then nothing but travesties of legal processes.

“Not to know (one) from Adam” is used by a speaker who means that he would be wholly unable to recognize the person of whom he speaks, probably a person once known but now forgotten.

“To root hog or die” means to get down to hard work or suffer the consequences. The earliest literary use so far reported goes back only to 1834, to Davy Crockett’s autobiography, “A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett,” written just two years before his death at the Alamo.

“To rain cats and dogs” does not refer to a gentle shower, but to a terrific downpour. Perhaps, because such rain is usually accompanied by heavy thunder and lightning, the allusion was to a cat and dog fight.

“Till the cows come home” is another rural expression popularized as long ago as the early 1600s. Although cows are always milked twice a day, mornings and evenings, this very old homily saying refers to the time that cows, with udders painfully full, come to the home gates for the morning milking. The saying seems at first to have always indicated disgracefully late hours, mostly hours spent riotously drinking and cavorting.

“To spill the beans” is to upset the plans; to relate something fully or prematurely; “to let the cat out of bag;” “to upset the apple cart.”

“To walk the chalk” in present-day American use refers to one who is made “to walk the chalk” in a line to prove his sobriety, not deviating a hair’s breadth, or he must obey the rules closely.

“To bark up the wrong tree” is to mistake one’s course of action; to be on the wrong course; to have one’s attention diverted from the intended object. Literally, this American phrase referred to a hunting dog used in the pursuit of raccoons. When this nocturnal animal takes to a tree, the dog is supposed to stay at the foot of the tree and bay until its master arrives. But in the dark, if the dog mistakes the tree in which the ‘coon has taken refuge, the hunter may lose it entirely.


Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail:


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