Up for Some Etymology?

by Lorna's Voice
Hey, I'm okay with eating green slimy stuff, but keep those fancy words away from me. They creep me out.

Hey, I’m okay with eating green slimy stuff, but keep those fancy words away from me. They creep me out.

Oh, you’re one of those people who have to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into before you agree to it, eh?

Fine. Don’t be a risk-taker.

Etymology is the study of word or phrase origins…as if you didn’t already know.

Of course I knew that...after I googled it.

Of course I knew that…after I googled it.

We’re all writers. Words are our tools. I happen to be fascinated by where words and everyday phrases come from. My mom knows that and give me a ginormous book of word and phrase origins: The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (4th edition), edited by Robert Hendrickson.

So I thought I would share a few with you. If you like this post, I’ll do more. But I had to start somewhere, so I started with the “A’s” and I’m just doing fairly common phrases.

Alive and kicking: So common, this one is a cliché today; but this phrase originated among London fishmongers in the 1700’s. They used it in reference to fish that were so fresh that they were still flapping about in their carts.

I guess he just needed to do a bit more kicking...

I guess he just needed to do a bit more kicking…

All washed up: Today we use this to refer to anything or anyone that is kaput, done, “the end.” The phrase came from the Industrial Revolution when factory workers would wash their hands at the end of their day’s work. It became synonymous with finishing anything.

Armed to the teeth: Used most often to indicate that a person is well-prepared in a competition of wits, this phrase gets its meaning from pirates who, when boarding a ship, often carried their weapons in the grip of their teeth as they swung themselves over and onto their victim’s vessel.

Unless that finger of yours is lethal, Captain Jack, and maybe it it, I suggest you put something else in your mouth before you attack.

Unless that finger of yours is lethal, Captain Jack, and maybe it is, I suggest you put something else in your mouth before you attack whatever it is you’re thinking of attacking.

At loose ends: We’ve had this feeling of not quite knowing what to do with ourselves, right? The expression dates back to the 1800’s and refers to “freedom from the tether,” like a horse out at pasture, thus untied.

As the crow flies: This is often said in giving estimates of distance from Point A to Point B if a straight path were available. But this expression dates back to at least 1800 when a New England naturalist, Alan Devoe, wrote of the remarkably intelligent and ruthless crow after observing these birds holding “conventions” of 40-60 birds: “The most extraordinary rites of the flock are the ‘trials’ they conduct. When a crow has broken the laws of crowdom, the flock gathers in judgment, parlaying sometimes for hours while the offender waits some distance away. Suddenly the discussion ceases; there is a moment of silence. Then the flock either rises up in unison and leaves, or dives in a mass upon the offender, pecks his eyes out, and pummels him to death.”

Yup, Ernie. It's time for another "convention." Albert got caught doing "the dirty" with Hank's chick, even though she's been known to fly around...if you know what I mean. Well Hank's got his feathers all ruffled and called for a meeting. It could go either way.

Yup, Ernie. It’s time for another “convention.” Albert got caught doing “the dirty” with Hank’s chick, even though she’s been known to “fly around”…if you know what I mean. Well Hank’s got his feathers all ruffled and called for a meeting. It could go either way.

At the end of one’s rope: Again, a familiar feeling, eh? It’s that feeling that you’ve just had enough–can’t take it any more or done all you can and you give up. This expression was first recorded in a 1686 French translation concerning someone finally being stopped in an act of wrong-doing. This suggests the phrase may have been inspired by the sight of a man dangling at the end of a hangman’s rope.

 

Shall I continue or is this a case of too much of not the right kind of information?

Shall I continue or is this a case of too much of not the right kind of information?

You tell me…

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8 Comments to “Up for Some Etymology?”

  1. yes Lorna very,, interesting..enjoyable learning curve..:)

  2. You might be interested in a book I’m currently reading, and the corresponding blog:

    http://blog.inkyfool.com/2011/08/etymologicon.html

  3. You get more interesting insects in etymology than in entomology!

  4. I always find word and phrase origins interesting too! Quite often I will utter something, and then think “Hmm, I wonder where that phrase came from?” Thanks to Google we can get the answer in seconds – what did we do years ago? (And it wasn’t THAT many years ago) – ask people who we knew to be wise, or trail off to the library to look it up, or more often than not just remain in a state of wondering!

    • Goggle is a wonderful tool. I use it all the time, too. Before I had that, I guess these big, heavy encyclopedias were what we used… 😉 Curious people like us will get our answers one way or another! 🙂

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