The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases

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Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
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The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
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When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

23 Notoriously Unrhymable Words (That Actually Have Rhymes)

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You’ll no doubt have heard the old fact that nothing rhymes with orange. But in fact, the English surname Gorringe—as in Henry Honeychurch Gorringe, captain of the USS Gettysburg—rhymes with orange. And so does Blorenge, the name of a hill in south Wales. But even if proper nouns like surnames and place names are excluded, that still leaves sporange, an obscure name for the sporangium, which is the part of a plant that produces its spores. So although it might all depend on your accent, on how obscure a word you’re willing to accept, and on precisely where the stress falls in the word (because sporange can either rhyme with orange or be pronounced “spuh-ranj”), it seems there actually is a rhyme for orange.

In fact, despite often finding their way onto lists of notoriously unrhymable words, all of the words listed here do have rhymes in English—just so long as bizarre dialect words and obscure scientific jargon are allowed.

1. Acrid rhymes with epacrid (in some pronunciations), a name for any plant of the genus Epacris, most of which are found in Australia.

2. Angst partially rhymes with both phalanxed, meaning “arranged in rows,” and thanksed, an old word meaning “given thanks to.”

3. Beige is pronounced so that it sounds more like the first syllable of Asia than it does similarly spelled words like age, gauge, stage, and rage. But that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of a rhyme; there’s also greige, the name for the dull color of undyed fabric.

4. Bulb rhymes with culb, an obscure 17th century word for a retort or a barbed reply.

5. Chaos rhymes with naos, a name for the innermost part of a Greek temple, and speos, an Egyptian tomb built into a cave.

6. Circle rhymes with hurkle, an old dialect word meaning “to pull your arms and legs in towards your body,” as well as both heterocercal and homocercal, two zoological terms describing the tails of fish that are either asymmetrical or symmetrical, respectively.

7. Circus has a homophone, cercus, which is the name of a bodily appendage found on certain insects, and so rhymes with cysticercus, another name for a tapeworm larva. If that’s too obscure, why not try rhyming it with murcous—a 17th century word meaning “lacking a thumb.”

8. Concierge is a direct borrowing from French, so the number of English words it can rhyme with is already limited. But there is demi-vierge, another French loanword used as an old-fashioned name for a unchaste young woman—or, as Merriam-Webster explains, “a girl … who engages in lewd or suggestive speech and usually promiscuous petting but retains her virginity.” It literally means “half-virgin.”

9. Dunce rhymes with punce, a dialect word for flattened, pounded meat, or for a sudden hard kick, among other definitions.

10. False rhymes with valse, which is an alternative name for a waltz, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

11. Film rhymes with pilm, an old southern English word for dust or fine powder.

12. Filth rhymes with both spilth, which is the quantity lost when a drink is spilled (or the spilling itself), and tilth, meaning hard work or labor.

13. Gouge rhymes with scrouge, which means “to crowd or crush together.” In 19th century college slang, a scrouge was also a long, dull, or arduous lesson or piece of work.

14. Gulf rhymes with both sulf, which is another name for toadflax plants, and culf, an old southwest English word for the loose feathers that come out of pillows and cushions.

15. Music rhymes with both ageusic and dysgeusia, both of which are medical words describing a total lack of or minor malfunction in a person’s sense of taste, respectively.

16. Purple rhymes with hirple, meaning “to limp” or “walk awkwardly,” and curple, an old Scots word for a leather strap that goes beneath the tail of a horse to secure its saddle (it also more broadly means "buttocks").

17. Replenish rhymes with both displenish, which means “to remove furniture,” and Rhenish, meaning “relating to the river Rhine.”

18. Rhythm rhymes with the English place name Lytham as well as smitham, an old word for fine malt dust or powdered lead ore.

19. Silver, after purple and orange, is the third of three English colors supposedly without rhymes. But there is chilver, an old dialect word for a ewe lamb.

20. Wasp rhymes with both cosp, a hasp for fastening a door or gate, and knosp, an architectural ornament resembling the bud of a tree.

21. Width rhymes with sidth, an English dialect word variously used for the length, depth, or breadth of something—or literally the length of one side.

22. Window rhymes with tamarindo, a Spanish-American drink made of boiled and sweetened tamarind fruit.

23. Women rhymes with both timon, an old word for the rudder of a ship, and dimmen, meaning “to grow dim” or “to set like the sun.” Woman, however, has no rhyme at all. (Apparently.)

A version of this list first ran in 2015.

100 Words Turning 100 This Year

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YouTube

In 1919, just a few months after World War I came to an end, the phrase World War 2 made its debut. The Oxford English Dictionary described it as "a reference to an imagined future war arising out of the social upheaval consequent upon the First World War." Twenty years later, the event wouldn't seem so imaginary.

Join editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy as she journeys into the past to dig up a whopping 100 words that are turning 100 this year in our all-new Mental Floss List Show. Whip out your OED and read along as you check out the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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