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: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Living in a state of well-being called West Virginia
Intrepid roosters run the FCC fox out of the henhouse
The dang Republicans and right-wing radio accomplished something that most Americans should appreciate; they kept the government out of newsrooms.
Schools struggling with kids’ combination of obesity, hunger
Little Jimmy isn’t so little. At age 11, he already is pushing 150 pounds, and his height hasn’t caught up with his weight.
A day when doing something didn’t feel like enough
It was a day for doing things I rarely did.
- Popcorn has considerable significance in pop culture
The touted benefits of hiking minimum wage are an illusion
I don’t know anyone averse to making more money. Sure, I have friends who demonstrate, through words and actions, that money is not the most important thing in their lives. But I haven’t seen one of them turn down a raise.
Fond memories and singing a song of six strings
Mom said she sang to me constantly when I was a baby and hoped I would grow up to like music. I did.
Aprons are a reminder of a kinder, gentler time
Aprons and potholders and cookbooks are not at the top of the gift-giving list when it comes to romantic offerings, but they are not entirely lost in the 21st century homestead.
Change to Violence Against Women Act is not enough for Natives
News last week that the U.S. Justice Department will allow three American Indian tribes to prosecute non-Indians for crimes on reservations is an important step toward these sovereign nations’ abilities to self-govern.
Good food is the best way to your Valentine’s heart
Did you know that you can make this Valentine’s Day an extra special treat for your love interest by simply impressing him/her with a gift from the heart?
- More Columns Headlines