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.”

12 Old-Timey Turkey Terms to Bring Back This Thanksgiving

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Want to spice up conversation this Thanksgiving? Use these terms while you’re talking turkey.

1. RUM COBBLE-COLTER

According to A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of Gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c., with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c., first published in the late 1600s, a cobble-colter is a turkey. A rum cobble-colter, on the other hand, is "a fat large cock-turkey."

2. I GUESS IT’S ALL TURKEY

This American phrase is “a quaint saying indicating that all is equally good.”

3. AND 4. BUBBLY-JOCK AND BOBBLE-COCK

Bubbly-jock is Scottish slang for a male turkey, from the noise the bird makes. The term can also be used to describe “a stupid, boasting person.” Both usages might apply at your Thanksgiving dinner. Slang for a turkey in northern England, meanwhile, is bobble-cock, according to The Slang Dictionary: Or, The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and "Fast Expressions” of High and Low Society, published in 1864.

5. TURKEY MERCHANTS

According to 1884’s The Slang Dictionary: Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal, this was a term for “dealers in plundered or contraband silk.” Previously, it referred to something more obvious: “a driver of turkeys and geese to market.”

6. ALDERMAN

A “well-stuffedturkey. An alderman in chains is a turkey with sausages; according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788, the sausages “are supposed to represent the gold chain worn by those magistrates.”

7. COLD TURKEY RAP

According to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of the Underworld: British and American, this 1928 term means "an accusation, a charge, against a person caught in the act." Perhaps you'll get a cold turkey rap for stealing seconds—or thirds—of your favorite dish this holiday.

8. BLOCK ISLAND TURKEY

An American slang term for salted cod, originating in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

9. TURKEY PUDDLE

Eighteenth-century slang for coffee.

10. SNOTERGOB

According to A Dictionary of the Scottish Language, snotergob is “the red part of a turkey’s head.”

11. RED AS A TURKEY COCK

This phrase dates back to 1630, according to Dictionary of Proverbs. It could refer to any kind of flushing of the face (including, perhaps, when your dad and your uncle are getting too worked up debating politics).

12. TO HAVE A TURKEY ON ONE’S BACK

According to the 1905 book A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, this is what you say when someone has imbibed a bit too much: It means “to be drunk.”

40 Clever Words That Begin With the Letter C

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The letter C is a modern-day descendent of the Ancient Greek letter gamma, and as such originally represented a “g” sound rather than “k.” The Romans, however, confused everything; they typically used their letter C to represent both “g” and “k” sounds, avoiding the letter K (which was descended from the Greek kappa) almost entirely. Having one letter to represent multiple sounds proved confusing, and so Roman scribes invented a new letter, G, to represent “g,” which freed C to represent the “k” sound. So when the Roman alphabet was introduced to England, C was originally used for all instances of the “k” sound—as in cyng (Old English “king”), sticca (“stick”), lician (“like”), cneow (“knee”), and cniht (“knight”).

Just as things were starting to settle down, along came William the Conqueror. After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the English language adopted a number of words from French in which the Latin letter C was now being used to represent a “s” sound, like city, citizen, and circle. Old English speakers were now facing the same problem that the Romans had had, as their letter C was being used for two entirely different sounds. Ultimately, C typically came to be used in all the “s”-sounding words (known as “soft-C”), while the Greek K was rescued from the linguistic scrapheap and began to be used for the “hard-C” words.

This all means that C isn’t used as much today as it was in Old English [PDF], but you can still expect it to account for around 2.5 percent of a page of written English, and it accounts for 3.5 percent of all the words in a dictionary—including the 40 clever C-words collected and collated here.

1. CABBY-LABBY

Also called a cabby-lab, cabby-labby is an old Scots dialect word for a noisy quarrel or disagreement in which everyone involved is speaking at the same time. Should you ever need to, you can also use cabby-labby as a verb, meaning “to argue” or “to disagree.”

2. CACAFUEGO

Borrowed into English in the 1600s, a cacafuego or cacafugo is a blustering, swaggering boaster. It literally means “fire-pooper” in Spanish.

3. CACHINNATE

Derived from Latin, cachinnation is loud or raucous laughter, and to cachinnate is to laugh loudly or immoderately. Something that is cachinnatory, incidentally, makes you cachinnate.

4. CACOLOGY

Cacology literally means “evil-speaking,” and is used to refer to a poor choice of words or noticeably bad language. Likewise, a caconym is an ill-fitting or unpleasant name; a cachotechny is a poorly constructed device or work of art; and a cacotype is either a printing error, or a libelously insulting printed description or account.

5. CAIN-COLORED

Because the Cain of Cain and Abel is supposed to have had red hair, Shakespeare coined the term Cain-colored in The Merry Wives of Windsor to describe someone with a fair, reddish-colored beard.

6. CALAMISTRATION

A formal word for the process of curling your hair.

7. CALIDITY

Derived from the same root as calorie, if something is calid then it’s warm, and so calidity is simply another name for warmth or heat. A caliduct is a pipe for conducting hot air or heated water, as in a radiator.

8. CALLOMANIA

Someone who thinks that they’re more beautiful than they really are is a callomaniac. Someone who is calophantic, likewise, pretends to be better than they really are.

9. CAMAIEU

Derived from the French for “cameo,” a camaïeu is a monochrome work of art, particularly one in which the color used is not one found in whatever is being portrayed (like a black-and-white image of a bright green apple, or a blue-and-white portrait of a person). By extension, the term camaïeu can also be used metaphorically to refer to any dull or predictable literary work.

10. CAPRICORNIFY

Whereas goats themselves have long been considered symbols of lecherousness and libidinousness, goats’ horns are, for some reason, considered a symbol of unfaithfulness and infidelity. One explanation suggests that goats are such proverbially foolish animals that they’re utterly unaware that they even have horns at all—just as the partner of an unfaithful lover is utterly unaware of their other half’s infidelity. Another theory points to the celebratory “horns” given to Roman soldiers returning home from successes on far-flung battlefields—only to find that they’ve been away from home so long that their wives have left them and moved on. Whatever the reason behind it, the association between goats’ horns and unfaithfulness is the origin of the word capricornify, which means “to cheat on your lover,” or, oppositely, “to be cuckolded or cheated on.”

11. CATACHTHONIAN

The adjective chthonian is usually used to mean “pertaining to the Underworld,” but the derived term catachthonian, or catachthonic, is simply another word for “underground” or “subterranean.”

12. CATACUMBAL

If the room you’re in feels like a catacomb, then it’s catacumbal.

13. CATAPHASIS

Cataphasis—a Greek word literally meaning “affirmation”—is a rhetorical device in which someone draws attention to a person’s bad points by ostensibly glossing over them; unlike other rhetorical devices that do the same thing (known as paralipsis), in a cataphasis the speaker makes it abundantly clear that the bad points in question absolutely exist, as in “I’m not going to mention the fact that he got fired for misconduct yesterday …” or, “but let’s not start talking about how she capricornifies everyone she’s ever gone out with …” If you’re the person being alluded to in the cataphasis, of course, you might want to consider responding with a …

14. CATAPLEXIS

… which is another rhetorical term, referring to a speech or pronouncement in which someone threatens revenge.

15. CATCH-FART

So-named because they’re supposed to walk so closely behind the person they admire, a catch-fart is an ingratiating, toadying sycophant.

16. CATERWISE

Derived from the French number quatre, cater is a 16th century word for the four on a die or in a pack of cards. Derived from that, to cater means to walk or move along a diagonal path, while to position something caterwise or cater-cornered means to place it diagonally.

17. CHABBLE

The chabble is the slight undulation on the surface of the sea, or of a liquid in a large vessel.

18. CHATTER-WATER

An old Yorkshire dialect nickname for weak tea.

19. CHILIAD

The smaller and lesser-known partner of the word myriad is chiliad. So while a myriad is literally a group of 10,000, a chiliad is a group of 1000. A chiliagon, ultimately, is a shape with 1000 sides; a chiliarch is the leader of 1000 men; and a chiliarchy is a government or ruling body formed from 1000 individual members.

20. CHIONABLEPSIA

A medical name for snow-blindness, an affliction of the eyes caused by the reflection of sunlight on snow or ice.

21. CHUMBLE

A 19th century word meaning “to nibble” or “to gnaw.”

22. CIRCUMBENDIBUS

A 17th-century word for a circuitous, long-winded route or way of doing something.

23. CLAMIHEWIT

An 18th-century Scots dialect word for a bitter disappointment, or for a sound thrashing or beating. It’s thought to literally mean “claw-my-head” and oddly is unrelated to …

24. CLAMJAMPHRIE

… which is another old Scots dialect word variously used to mean “a rowdy crowd of people,” “worthless trivialities,” or “complete nonsense.” No one is quite sure where clamjamphrie comes from, but one theory claims that it might once have been a contemptuous nickname for a Highland clan.

25. CLIMB-TACK

Also called a climb-shelf, a climb-tack is a cat that likes to explore high shelves or hard-to-reach places. Metaphorically, it’s a naughty or mischievous child.

26. CLINOMANIA

Also known as dysania, clinomania is an obsessive desire to stay in bed or a total inability to get up in the morning. It’s etymologically related to …

27. CLINOPHOBIA

… which is the fear of going to bed. Other C-phobias include chromophobia (the fear of brightly-colored things), cheimaphobia (the cold), cryophobia (ice), cyberphobia (computers), cynophobia (dogs), and cneidophobia (insect stings).

28. COCKAPENTIE

Probably derived from cock-a-bendy, an old Scots word for an effeminate or priggish young man, a cockapentie is a man whose pride and shallowness compels him to live far beyond his means.

29. COLDBLOW

An old English dialect word for a freezing cold winter’s day. The wrong kind of day to be …

30. COLDRIFE

... If you’re coldrife then you’re susceptible to the cold, although the word can also be used figuratively to mean “spiritless” or “in need of cheering up.”

31. CORN-JUICE

19th century American slang for whisky.

32. COSP

The handle of a spade.

33. COTHROCH

An old dialect word (pronounced so that the roch part rhymes with loch) meaning “to work or cook in a disorganized or unsanitary manner.”

34. CRAFTY-SICK

Another Shakespearean invention, this time from Henry IV Part 2, meaning “pretending to be unwell.”

35. CREEPMOUSE

It mightn’t sound like it, but creepmouse was a 16th-century term of endearment, in particular for a young child or baby.

36. CROOCHIE-PROOCHLES

Probably a corruption of crooked and prickles, croochie-proochles is an old Scots dialect word for a feeling of discomfort that comes from sitting in a constricted, cramped position for too long.

37. CRUTLE

An old English dialect word meaning “to recover from a severe illness.”

38. CUCKOO-LAMB

As well as being another name for a late-season lamb, a cuckoo-lamb is a child born to older parents.

39. CUDDLE-ME-BUFF

An old Yorkshire word for alcohol, particularly when it’s been warmed or sweetened.

40. CULF

All those loose feathers and bits of fluff that come out of pillows and cushions? That’s the culf.

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