Idioms abound, yet they usually have shaky or completely untraceable origins. Hard-working word-sleuths have uncovered the origins of only a fraction of English idioms. Here are a few.
Point blank – the term appears to come from French, point blanc, a term in which the blanc refers to the white circle in the center of a target & point means exactly that.
Slush fund – The masts of sailing ships were once maintained by rubbing slush into the wood. This slush was the waste grease from the galley. After a ship’s masts were happily greased, the cook could sell the remaining grease, which put money in his pocket – money he could spend however he liked, his slush fund.
Dull as dishwater – Oddly, this is a fishing term. Fishing in a pond, river, lake or bay wasn’t dull at all, but fishing in a ditch rarely produced a fish, & was therefore, tedious. The idiom appears to originally have been dull as ditchwater, or dull as fishing in ditch water. In time, it changed to the idiom we know today.
Nick of time – During the Middle Ages, attendance at church and university was taken by carving tally marks, or nicks, in a piece of wood. Those who arrived on time received a nick. It’s intriguing that we don’t refer to those arriving late as nickless, nick-free, or unnicked.
Pillar to post – Criminals were once either pilloried or tied to a post and whipped. The even less fortunate were dragged from one of these two forms of torture to the other, sometimes multiple times. In time, from pillory to post morphed into from pillar to post.
Peeping Tom – apparently when the famous (or infamous) Lady Godiva rode through the streets without a stitch on, the one chap who ogled her & got caught doing so was named Tom. Some sources suggest that neither Tom’s peeping nor his punishment (going blind) was part of the original tale, but at least w ended up with this idiom.
Good readers, which of these idiom origins do you find most remarkable? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Phrase Finder, Etymonline, the OED, & Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
Check out these two unlikely sentences & the unlikely etymologies of the words therein.
The vicar’s Ouija board turned out to be a red herring.
A vicar’s job is to interpret scripture for the masses, substituting for Jesus, which is why vicar is based on the Latin word vicarious, or substitute (1300s).
A Ouija board functions due to the “agreement” of the two people whose fingers rest on the planchette, thus, its name was derived from a marriage of the French & German words for yes: oui + ja = Ouija (1910).
A red herring in a mystery throws the reader/viewer off the trail. This term comes from fox hunting as early as the 1680s, as nefarious characters (or members of the Save the Beleaguered Fox Brigade, I presume) might drag a red herring across the fox’s trail, causing the hounds to veer off in the wrong direction (apparently the reek of the red herring is infamous).
Our second unlikely sentence using words with unlikely etymolgies includes a word once quite acceptable, but now considered offensive:
A moron moseyed through the bedlam in the nick of time.
The now-offensive term moron reflects Dr. Henry H. Goddard’s impression of the mental capacity of pre-teens. In 1910 he defined his term as meaning dull, stupid, silly or foolish, and introduced the word moron to apply to adults whose mental aptitude coincided with the abilities of 8-12 year olds. I'm not inclined to use this idiom, but I find the etymology intriguing.
The word mosey is the flipside of the word vamoose – the former meaning to leave in a languid fashion & the latter meaning to leave speedily.
Bedlam was born as the nickname for a London-based priory, St. Mary of Bethlehem, which became a home for the mentally unstable, famous during part of its tenure for the screams of its inmates (1418).
Though nick of time wasn’t recorded until the 1640s, the story is that some Medieval churches and colleges recorded attendance by notching a stick. When a parishioner or student arrived, a nick was cut into the stick. The last one to arrive on time would receive the nick of time.
This week’s unlikely etymologies were inspired by Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins (Carol Publishing Group, 1999) - backed up by the OED, Merriam Webster, & Etymonline,
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.