Clover’s Literary Corner: Put This Idiom in Your Pipe and Smoke It

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By Clover Carroll

For my birthday this year, my dear friend Lois Whitehead gave me one of the Great Courses on CD, The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins. Consisting of no less than 36 30-minute lectures by University of Michigan Linguist Anne Curzan, this has kept me both entertained and educated through many drives to Charlottesville and back. By far my favorite lectures have been the two on Slang and Idioms. I often ponder the meaning and origins of the many colorful and imaginative idioms that pepper the English language, reflecting a shared American—and sometimes British—experience, and no doubt befuddling new language learners. What would a newcomer think we mean when we exclaim that it is raining cats and dogs or that the wind is blowing to beat the band?

There are far too many interesting stories of the origin of idioms to cover here, so I have chosen just a few of the most interesting. In the sense I mean here, an idiom—from the Middle French idiome—is a group of words that, through usage, has taken on a distinctive meaning that cannot be inferred from the literal meanings of the individual words. The origins of some idioms are fairly obvious. When someone goes “out on a limb,” they take a risk as great as a tree-climber who jeopardizes his or her safety by crawling out so far the bough might break. When we wish to eavesdrop on a juicy conversation, we wish we were a “fly on the wall,” who is relatively invisible to the speakers but who hears and sees everything that transpires. If we perform well or interpret a situation accurately, we are complimented for “hitting the nail on the head,” a challenging feat for any novice carpenter. When I try to bang a nail in straight, my patience often “wears thin,” like the knees of old jeans.

But the source of most idioms is more puzzling than obvious. They are often metaphorical, that is, they imply a comparison. When it is raining really hard, it is as if it’s raining cats and dogs—but of course there are not really animals falling from the sky. But why that particular analogy? This expression is believed to derive from the habit of cats and dogs of hiding in the thatched roofs common on early English houses. A hard rain would wash the surprised creatures out and cause them to fall from the roof—as if from the sky. “To beat the band,” that is to do anything to the furthest extent possible, originally meant that you sang or played or shouted louder even than your musical accompaniment, and later came to refer to anything superlative. Speaking of cats, why is revealing a secret referred to as “letting the cat out of the bag”? In earlier times, farmers who sold live pigs would often try to cheat their customers by substituting a cat for the pig, which was presented to the customer sealed in a bag so it could not escape. When the purchaser arrived home and opened the bag, the poor cat would jump out to reveal the trick. Many of these explanations come from the endlessly fascinating website www.worldwidewords.org, written by British linguist Michael Quinion. Quinion points out that most of these origins are not definitely known, but rather he has chosen the most plausible of various explanations based on evidence gleaned from publications, the OED, and other sources.

Many of our idioms originate with farming and other once commonly shared activities, so that they would have been readily understood, but over time have lost their practical connection. When counseling a friend to seize a fortunate opportunity, we tell them to “make hay while the sun shines,” as does any good farmer who makes sure to cut the tall grasses when they are dry, will cut cleanly, and are less likely to develop mold in the bale. The foolishness of “sowing wild oats” comes from a prolific European species of wild grass call avena fatua, which is useless as a cereal, but devilishly difficult to get rid of. Thus sowing seeds for this pest would be a reckless and frivolous activity, often associated with male promiscuity (an easy association with seed-sowing). Why is someone who is anxiously awaiting an unknown outcome said to be “on tenterhooks”? This expression derives from the 18th century British method of making wool cloth. After being washed and died, the cloth would be stretched to dry in the sun by attaching it to metal hooks on frames called tenters. Whole fields of these drying frames might be visible as one traversed the English countryside. The analogy of being stretched to the breaking (or tearing) point to a mental state of anxious suspense is easy to see. Similarly, use of the expression “beating around the bush” to describe a failure to get to the point of an argument derives from hunting. In order to flush birds out of hiding, the hunter would beat the bush, but might get so caught up in beating its many sides that he would fail to successfully shoot any of the fleeing birds, thus missing the point of the whole exercise! Moving from hunting to fishing, we can see how “opening a can of worms”—live bait that would escape the can and be very difficult to get back in—came to refer to a complicated series of events that is likely to cause trouble or scandal and that you were better off not to set in motion in the first place.

Curzan and Quinion both refer to “folk etymologies,” creative accounts that people have devised to explain idiomatic origins, but for which linguists can find no actual evidence. In this category fall some of my favorites. To “mind your p’s and q’s,” that is, to behave oneself, probably referred to children learning the alphabet; but a more intriguing explanation comes from the early days of printing. Typesetters had to individually arrange the tiny metal letters in order to spell out, say, an entire newspaper article. Because the actual printout would be a mirror image of the set type, they had to place all the letters in reverse! So in this context, it would have been extremely easy to get one’s p’s and the q’s mixed up, giving rise to this colorful expression. When I visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-on-Avon, the tour guide explained that a “rule of thumb” originally referred to the law that a man could not beat his wife with a rod larger than the width of his thumb.

But Curzan and Quinion dismiss this as a folk etymology, providing the more prosaic, but plausible, explanation that many body parts were once used as guides for measurement—such as the foot and hand. The distance to the thumb joint being about an inch, the rule of thumb was most likely simply a measurement. One of my favorite idioms, saying that a mechanical device is “on the fritz” when it is not working properly, probably derives from The Katzenjammer Kids, a comic strip created by the German immigrant Rudolph Dirks and drawn by Harold H. Knerr and published in many major newspapers from 1912 to 1949. In these hilarious episodes, clever pranksters Hans and Fritz caused all kinds of mayhem and havoc with their devilish hijinks. Now I could go on and on, but instead I’ll put it to bed and end on a high note.