Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Etymology of Common Idioms

“Etymology of common idioms”, try saying that five times real fast. As writers we sometimes find it useful to use idioms. But do you know how they got started and what they really mean.

Rule of thumb: means a common rule or practice. But back in the day, for those of you who beat their wives, “Rule of Thumb” meant that you could not beat your wife with a rod thicker than your thumb. There are some other explanations out there, but this one popped out at me. I don’t think I will be using that one again.

Paddy wagon: Paddy wagon is a term commonly used for the cart, wagon, or van used to pick up intoxicated people and take them to the jailhouse. Paddy is a slang word for the Irish, (not sure if it’s derogatory or not, so use it at your own risk and don’t blame me if you get punched in the face). So it was named the paddy wagon because at the time most of its customers were supposedly drunken Irishmen. I used this one to make a point. You work hard at your craft and you may use commonly accepted phrases, but all of your work will be for nothing if you inadvertently offend an entire race of people.

Keep your pants on: Means to calm down. An obvious one, which originated with the ladies no doubt. It makes an apparent reference to suggesting that one should calm down… romance is not imminent.

Knock on wood: Shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus pieces of the cross on which he was crucified were circulated in the early church. To touch one of those pieces of wood was supposed to bring good luck. The idiom grew to knock on any piece of wood and it would bring you good luck.

Pot to piss in: Means you are poor. My mother-in-law used to say he didn’t have a pot to piss in or a back door to throw it out. I knew what she meant, but didn’t know where it came from until now. In the days before indoor plumbing you did your business in a pot called a chamber pot, which would be dumped out a window or door. So if you were very poor you didn’t even have a pot to piss in (I’m not sure what the alternative is. It should be noted that “piss” was not a bad word originally and found its way into other idioms like “full of piss and vinegar”.

Bouched (botched) up: There was a guy named Sir Thomas Bouch who designed a bridge somewhere in Scotland around 1876. Less than two years after the bridge was finished it collapsed in a violent storm sending 75 people to their deaths. After that night, if you really messed something up… you bouched it. I believe that the American spelling is “botched”, and though “bouched” is spelled differently, it is pronounced the same. I goggled the name Bouch, there are still a bunch of them around. So be careful if you like to us this one.

Break a leg: Theatre people believed that there are spirits or ghosts known as sprites. Sprites hung around the theatre and caused trouble by wreaking havoc and breaking things. If the Sprites heard you ask for something, they were likely to make the opposite happen. Hence “Break a Leg” was actually a wish of good luck.

In the Crapper: I kid you not, there was a English guy named Thomas Crapper who is credited with inventing the flushable toilet. Soldiers returning home from England after World War I introduced the word to America. It means something is messed up beyond repair. And that is where we get the word crap… I guess we now know where that one comes from too.

There are thousands of these and they all have origins. Most are benign but some are not and can get you into trouble. So before you use one in your novel or Blog make sure you know what it means and where it came from.

I found a couple of websites some just list idioms and gave their common meanings, but at least one of them gave the origins of the idiom.

If you are not sure goggle it.

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