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Origins of Common Words and Phrases

By Edited Mar 10, 2016 1 1

I love learning about unexpected starts to words and phrases I thought I knew.  I've collected a few of my favorites in a random list for you.

A couple fun ones first.

 

Skid row

Common usage:  Sometimes seen as “skid road”, this refers to a shabby area inhabited by lowlifes and miscreants (love that word).  This is also the place to find your favorite seedy dive bar and Audrey II.

Skid road, Seattle, 1874

Origin:  Several cities claim to be the source of the original ‘skid road’, but I, of course, believe it originated in Seattle.  Logs were cut and drug, or skidded down a road to the waiting train cars or ships.  Yesler Way (in the photo above) in downtown Seattle was the skid road for logs coming from Yesler’s Mill at the top of First Hill, headed for transport elsewhere.   The area around the mill was populated with cheap hotels and cookhouses for the itinerant workers.  Bars and taverns also helped the workers avoid carting around too much money, hence the association of a rundown area with the term ‘skid row’.

Vancouver, BC also has a reasonable claim to the term, having several seedy areas associated with logging mills and skid roads for the lumber.

Bonus word!  The roads used to drag the logs needed to be lubricated to make transport easier.  The person in charge of this job was called the “grease monkey” which may have led to the term being used today to indicate a mechanic.

 

Nimrod

Common usage:  Used to indicate a stupid fellow, I’m pretty sure Bugs Bunny had a lot to do with popularizing, or even creating this usage.  Since the original Nimrod was a hunter, Bugs used the word 'nimrod' to poke fun at the hunter Elmer Fudd.

Origin:  The origin seems to have nothing to do with common usage today.  Nimrod was a biblical king and a mighty hunter.  He did have a reputation as being rebellious, so perhaps that helped towards using his name in a derogatory manner.  Depending on the version of the story, Nimrod either sets himself against God, or proclaims himself God.  I suppose for the very religious, Nimrod behaved in a stupid manner, and calling someone a nimrod referred to those very poor life choices he made.

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A surprising (or not surprising considering the historical importance of the navy) number of words and phrases come from nautical lingo.  Some, such as “keel over” or “above board” seem obvious when you think about them, but a few others are surprising.

1778 Naitical Chart

 

The bitter end

Common usage: The final end of a task, no matter how arduous or unpleasant.  The limit of one’s efforts.

Origin:  A sturdy post on the deck of a ship was called a bitt (or bit). The end of the anchor line was secured to this bitt. When the line was paid out in to set the anchor, if the water was deeper than anticipated the rope would pay out ‘to the bitter end’ – to the end of the rope that was attached to the bitt.

 

Crossing the line

Common usage: Going too far when doing something.  Behaving in a way that is not socially acceptable.

Origin:  This was an initiation rite performed onboard when a sailor crossed the equator for the first time. It’s difficult to know if this is a tribute to King Neptune, or a sort of ‘whistling in the dark’ party as the sailor entered the realms of monsters.  I could see the ‘monster’ theme leading to the current meaning of going too far, as sailing into serpent-infested waters wouldn’t be seen as a good thing, but the line crossing ceremony itself has some bad history.  The rites were frequently accompanied by beatings and dragging the newbie through the surf.  Sailors often ended up in sick bay, or dead.  I could see these extreme hazings as also leading to the current meaning, as accidently killing your shipmate seems to be taking things a little too far.

Bonus word!  Hazing may also have a nautical origin.  In the 19th century, many captains, to assert their authority, would work the crew night and day, leaving them in a mental haze.  Today the word is used to mean an unpleasant ritual that you have to undergo to become one of the group.

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Many words and phrases are attributable to Shakespeare.  There’s some discussion about whether he actually coined new words, or was the first to put commonly used words and phrases into a lasting written form.  Perhaps the answer is that some of both events happened.

Shakespeare

 

Laughingstock, or laughing-stock, or laughing stock.

Common usage:  Something funny at someone’s expense.  The butt of a joke.

Stocks at Keevil, Wiltshire
Origin:  Popularized by Shakespeare, but predates him by at least 30 years.  As a light form of punishment, people had hands and/or feet trapped in holes between two boards – a stock.  This was not the more severe form which included having your head trapped in a board, which was called a pillory.   Neither of these have anything to do with the phrase, though.  Rather ‘stock’ in this sense seems to refer to something solid, as in, a solid source of the reason for laughter, or the butt (stock) of a joke.

Bonus word!  Pilloried, meaning ‘to expose to public ridicule and shame’ comes from being put in a pillory.

 

Fair play

Common usage:  Giving all players a fair chance.  Also used to mean fairness and justice in social contexts.

Origin:  Coined by the man himself, Shakespeare used this in several of his plays.  He may have simply decided that another phrase in common usage during his time, ‘foul play’ deserved a positive counterpart.

 

Eaten out of house and home

Common usage: To eat everything a person has, to consume a large amount of food.

Origin: Another Shakespeare original, this was seen in Henry the IV, part three:

MISTRESS QUICKLY:
It is more than for some, my lord; it is for all, all I have.  He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his: but I will have some of it out again, or I will ride thee o' nights like the mare.

 

 

Too much of a good thing

Common usage: Too much of something may lead to harm.  This seemed like a good phrase with which to end this list, lest you become weary of my favorite phrases and ramblings.

Origin:  A older phrase that was popularized by Shakespeare.  Seen in As You Like It:

ROSALIND: Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?
Come, sister, you shall be the priest and marry us.
Give me your hand, Orlando. What do you say, sister?

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Comments

Mar 11, 2013 12:40pm
articles4us
Great article. I learned a lot. It's interesting how you would never guess the origin of some of the phrases we use every day, isn't it?
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