Rattling Around the Brain; Longing to be Set Free!
If you’re like me, something will come out of your mouth, that sounds so bizarre and archaic, that you wonder how it ever ended up rattling around your brain. Yet out it comes, in all of its high sounding peculiarity. Of course, I am speaking about the old sayings we all pick up as children, that remain with us throughout our lives and rear their ugly heads at the most inappropriate moments. “Did I really just say that?” These sayings are casually passed down from one generation to the next, with no concern for where they came from or whether they should continue in the lexicon of the English language. Here are just a few for your enjoyment, and their origin according to the knowledge keepers of the internet.
This is the one that set this column a flight, and I actually can’t believe this came out of my mouth; and you can blame my father’s side of the family. “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s (pigs) ear.” From Dictionary.com: “Being unable to turn something ugly or inferior into something attractive or of value…This expression was already a proverb in the mid 1,500’s.” Wow, from the 1500’s!
One of the best known of these English sayings is “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Phases.org.UK.com says: “This proverb is one of the oldest and best-known in English and came into the language in the 16th century, probably imported from other cultures. It warns against taking unnecessary risks – it is better to keep what you have (a bird) than to risk getting more and ending with nothing (two birds out of your reach).”
Do you know what a “coot” is? Well neither do I but I do know they are both crazy and old. “Crazy as a coot,” of course derives from waters birds, such as “loons” which is also another name for odd. An “old coot” is a foolish or eccentric person, a stupid fellow, a simpleton.
“Fit as a fiddle” is another one of those phrases that sometimes passes the lips at odd times. Phrases.org.UK says: Of course the ‘fiddle’ here is the colloquial name for violin. ‘Fit’ didn’t originally mean healthy and energetic, in the sense it is often used nowadays to describe the inhabitants of gyms. When this phrase was coined ‘fit’ was used to mean ‘suitable, seemly’, in the way we now might say ‘fit for purpose’. Thomas Dekker, in The batchelars banquet, 1603 referred to ‘as fine as a fiddle’ ”
One that recently came out of my father’s mouth that gave me and a couple of twenty-somethings a chuckle was, “as easy as Joe’s girl.” In the context he said it the meaning was that the job to be done was going to be an easy one. We all can imagine why Joe’s girl was known as easy.
According to my internet knowledge keepers, “the whole nine yards” is the most asked about phrase. “Although we have good documentary evidence of the expression’s existence in the USA in 1907, it appears it wasn’t in wide circulation before 1961. Why? In May 1961, the American athlete Ralph Boston broke the world long jump record with a jump of 27 feet 1/2 inch. No one had previously jumped 27 feet. This was big news at the time and widely reported. Surely the feat cried out for this headline: ‘Boston goes the whole nine yards’ And yet, not a single journalist worldwide came up with that line, which is missing from all newspaper archives. The phrase may have been coined before 1961, but it certainly wasn’t then known to that most slang-aware of groups – newspaper journalists. The earliest known example of the phrase in print that I know of is from an Indiana newspaper The Mitchell Commercial, 2nd May 1907: This afternoon at 2:30 will be called one of the baseball games that will be worth going a long way to see. The regular nine is going to play the business men as many innings as they can stand, but we can not promise the full nine yards. It appeared again in the same paper the following year, on 4th June 1908: …Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell, but we refuse to stand while he unloads, He will catch some unsuspecting individual some of these days and give him the whole nine yards. The meaning of ‘the whole nine yards’ in the above citations is clear, that is, as we use it now, ‘the whole thing/the full story’.
Beggars can’t be choosers is a phrase from the Proverbs of John Heywood. Again, from phrases.org.uk we learn that, “If you request something to be given you should not question what you are given. This proverbial phrase has much in common with ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth‘ both in meaning and by virtue of having been first recorded in print by John Heywood. Both phrases were coined well before any form of organized state support for the poor and express the widely held medieval opinion that if you asked for and received a gift you should be grateful for it. The ‘gift horse’ proverb was recorded first, in Heywood’s 1546 version of A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue. ‘Beggars should not be choosers’ didn’t appear until the 1562 version of ‘Proverbs’. Beggers should be no choosers, but yet they will: Who can bryng a begger from choyse to begge still? The proverb is more commonly expressed these days as ‘beggars can’t be choosers’. This leads to an ambiguity in meaning between ‘beggars are unable to be choosers’ and ‘beggars ought not to be choosers’. Of course, the latter is the original meaning.”
Well I am finding myself between a “rock and a hard place,” and the “devil and the deep blue sea,” since I am fast running out of space to continue. This phrase originated in the USA in the early part of the 20th century. It is the American manifestation of a phrase that exists in several forms in other cultures. The dilemma of being in a position where one is faced with two equally unwelcome options appears to lie deep in the human psyche. Language always reflects people’s preoccupations and there are several phrases that express this predicament. The first of these quite literally conveys the uncomfortable nature of the choice between two lemmas (propositions), that is, ‘on the horns of a dilemma’. Other phrases that compare two less than desirable alternatives are ‘the lesser of two evils’, ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea‘, ‘between Scylla and Charybdis’, ‘an offer you can’t refuse‘ and ‘Hobson’s choice‘. The earliest known printed citation of ‘between a rock and a hard place’ is in the American Dialect Society’s publication Dialect Notes V, 1921: ‘To be between a rock and a hard place, …to be bankrupt. Common in Arizona and California in recent panic of 1907.’” The phrase may have a mining connotation.