We’ve all heard the old saying “CAUTION: PUT BRAIN IN GEAR BEFORE SETTING MOUTH IN MOTION” and know that it did not necessarily come from the mind of some wise sage or classical philosopher such as Aristotle. It probably originated back in the ’50’s when 15-year-old Suzie lashed out at her mother because ” . . . You never let me go to the drive-in-movies with Bobby!” As we all know, Bobby was a 16-year-old walking, talking container of raging adolescent male hormones with skin wrapped around it. You’ll have to trust me on that one!
It got me thinking about some of the phrases that are in common use today in the English language and their origins. So as I often do, I went to the public library known as the internet.
WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?
HOW MANY YARDS?
How many times a month do we hear the phrase “the whole nine yards” to describe something in its entirety? I thought that it came from WWII machine gunners in US aircraft in Europe. When finished with a machine gun belt previously loaded with ammunition, the common response to the question as to whether or not the flier was finished was “Yes, the whole nine yards. Come to find out it could have, but it aint necessarily so. Seems that that explanation is one of several possible.
Other speculation ranges from the capacity of a cement truck, to sailing ships and their deployed sails. The possibilities are numerous. Here are just a few:
1. The amount of cloth in the queen’s bridal train
2. The Shroud of Turin.
3. A joke about a prodigiously well-endowed Scotsman who gets his kilt caught in a door. (What does a Scotsman wear under his kilt anyway?)
4. A fourth-down play in football.
One explanation is that it is a variation on an old Southern axiom from the turn of the 20th century of similar description, “the whole six yards”, which could describe the length of a parachute line, the diameter of a pitcher’s mound or the amount of material in a Varanasi Sari. The latter being a woven Indian garment made out of fine silk and bearing elaborate golden embroidery either along the border or all over. That’s a “stretch” from baseball and skydiving.*
“A thorn in the flesh” – This is a phrase of biblical origin which means a continuous source of difficulty or trouble. The phrase itself can be found in 2 Corinthians 12:7 where the Apostle Paul writes “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (NIV Version).
No, that one explanation does not count as your bible reading for the day!
Why would clams be happy? It has been suggested that open clams give the appearance of smiling. The derivation more likely comes from the fuller version of the phrase, now rarely heard – ‘as happy as a clam at high water’. Hide tide is when clams are free from the attentions of predators; surely the happiest of times in the bivalve mollusc world. The phrase originated in the north-eastern states of the USA in the early 19th century. The earliest citation that I can find is from a frontier memoir The Harpe’s Head – A Legend of Kentucky, 1833:
And I thought it was from Bart Simpson.
This phrase is the name of parents’ traditional responses to their children’s question “where do babies come from?”. According to an article from phrases.org.uk, “Not that parents usually resort to describing the actual mating of avians or insects – the name is just a generalised allusion to using the habits of creatures that children may be familiar with. I suppose it’s one step further on from ‘the stork brings them’, which was the commonplace reply in the UK when I was a lad. The euphemistic avoidance technique, which may call on references to eggs or the mysterious ‘pollination’, is of course just confusing to children, who are well able to cope with the real ‘facts of life’. This was satirised in The Simpson’s cartoon show, in the episode Homer vs. Patty and Selma, which was first broadcast in February, 1995. The episode includes a scene featuring the ten year old Bart Simpson in happy mood:
Bart: What a day, eh, Milhouse? The sun is out, birds are singing, bees are trying to have sex with them – as is my understanding…
The origin of this phrase is uncertain, which is odd for what is such a common phrase and one that appears to be of fairly recent coinage. A work which is sometimes cited as making the link between birds and bees and human sexuality is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Work without Hope, 1825:
All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair – The bees are stirring – birds are on the wing – And Winter, slumbering in the open air, Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring! And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing, Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.”
AMERICAN GOOD LUCK SIGN?
In January 1968 the American Naval Electronic surveillance Ship, The Pubelo was captured in international waters by the North Koreans and the crew held captive until December of the same year. While in captivity the crew was photographed giving what they told their captors was a Hawaiian “good luck sign” to indicate to the world that they were okay. The “good luck” sign was nothing other than the familiar “one finger salute” used today to convey to fellow highway drivers our “best wishes” for a safe journey after they have cut just us off in traffic.
The origin of this popular gesture is in question, but I like the explanation given in the website truthorfiction.com. Since this is a”G” rated blog, I’ll let you decide if you want to go there or not. It does have something to do with “Plucking Yew” trees . . . if you catch my drift!
STICK ‘EM UP PARDNER!
The common phrase used to indicate that one desires to sit in the passenger seat of an automobile “riding shotgun” goes back to the Old West . . . well to us boomers who were brought up on Gene, Roy and Hoppy anyway. For those of you reading this who don’t understand, ask Gramps, he’ll give you the lowdown.
In the movies of the forties and eventually tv, riding shotgun meant that one was sitting atop the front end of a stagecoach, next to the driver guarding a strong box laden with gold bullion or coins destined as payroll for the miners, railroad workers, or a deposit for the local First Bank of Dry Gulch.
To the best of my remembrances, this phrase is usually uttered when someone new has just been assigned to a new group. Primarily a military outfit. Imagine the following conversion:
Admiral: Captain, we’ve just been assigned some new recruits from headquarters.
Captain: Yes, Admiral, I’ve heard. A bunch of wet nosed kids, still wet behind the ears.
The term is an allusion to an infant, immediately after the birth process, being still “wet behind the ears”.
That word goes back . . . wait a minute, it’s the Japanese word for goodbye. Never mind. Well, that’s all I have time for today kids. Well, not really. I’ve got a million more of ’em, but I know that most of you all have real lives. They’ll be more of them in the future, so don’t despair.
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