And we continue with our American stories. The story of the English language is itself something we cover, and we've been doing it with a remarkable author, Andrew Thompson, who's written a terrific book, Hair of the Dog, to paint the town red, the curious origins of everyday sayings, and fun phrases.
Here's Andrew with some more stories about phrases we all know, but don't know why we use them. They're often treated well and sometimes seen as respected members of the family. But any slave who caused trouble or was considered unsuitable for the landowner's family were put on a boat and sold down the river to the slave plantations on the lower Mississippi. There the conditions were much harsher and life was cheap, so the slave was sold down the river.
Son of a gun is usually said to someone in a friendly way, sort of a young rogue, you son of a gun. And it's yet another nautical phrase. Centuries ago the British Navy allowed women to join sailors on long voyages and live on the ships. Sometimes the women were partners of the sailors and sometimes they were prostitutes. Pregnancy were common and most babies were born in a designated area behind the ship's gun.
Many pregnancies were unplanned and in a lot of instances the child's paternity was unknown, and in such cases the child was listed in the ship's log as a son of a gun. Sour grapes means to act in a jealous way after a disappointment. It's one of a number of expressions attributed to Aesop, the ancient Greek writer. In his fable, The Fox and the Grapes, a hungry fox sees some ripe grapes hanging from a trestled vine. He uses all of his cunning to get them, but is unsuccessful.
Knowing that he won't be able to get the grapes, the embittered fox says that he didn't really want them anyway, declaring, The grapes are sour and not ripe as I thought. Spick and span means fresh and unused or neat and clean. And it's an expression that originated in the 16th century shipyards. The two words are now obsolete, but at that time a spick was a spike or a nail and a span was a wooden shaving chip.
When a ship was brand new and first launching, its nails would be shiny and rust free, and there would be the odd bit of wood shaving on the deck, so it was still considered spick and span. To spill the beans means to confess or divulge a secret, and it has its origins in ancient Greece. When an election was conducted for a new member to enter a secret, society or private club, the existing members would vote. They were given a white or a brown bean, and each member could place only one in the jar to cast his vote. A white bean meant yes and a brown bean meant no. Nobody apart from the vote counters knew how many of each were in each jar, so the new member would never know just how popular or unpopular he was unless the jar was knocked over.
In that case, the beans would spill and the votes would be divulged. The expression spin doctor means someone who gives a twisted and favourable version of events, normally a political press agent or publicist, and it began with American politics. And while the word spin had been used since the early 1800s to mean telling a story, it wasn't until the 1980s when the expression began properly when Ronald Reagan described the public relations officer to his Strategic Defence Initiative as being on spin control in providing a favourable version of events to the media.
The phrase soon changed to spin doctor, and it went from there. The expression spitting image means an exact likeness, and it's actually a corruption of the expression spit an image. The same began with the idea of someone being formed from the spit of another, so great is the similarity between them.
It was as though one had been spat out of the other's mouth. The phrase began in the 1600s and had developed a spitting image by the early 20th century. A square meal is a nutritious meal, and it's a nautical phrase from the British warships of the 17th century. They had poor living conditions, the quarters were cramped and most meals were insubstantial. In particular, breakfast and lunch usually consisted of little more than bread and water. However, the final meal of the day did provide some sustenance and usually included some form of meat. It was this meal that was served on a large square tray made of wood, designed in that shape for easy storage.
This larger, more nutritious serving became known as a square meal. To start from scratch means to start again from the beginning, and it originated from the sport of horse racing in the Middle Ages. At that time a line was marked or scratched in the ground by a sword, and the jockeys began the race behind the mark.
If it was found that any of them weren't following the course that was set out, they would have to go back and start again from scratch. This progressed into foot races with handicaps where weak competitors were given headstarts, while a contestant who started from scratch in the ground was given no advantage. The expression was then adopted into the golfing world with swing from scratch. If someone steals your thunder, they are taking credit for something that you did. And that expression began in the theatre in the 1700s with a playwright named John Dennis. He produced a play at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, and for the show he invented a novel method for creating the sound effect of thunder. He hit large tin sheets together backstage.
But his play flopped and was replaced by Macbeth. When that production used his technique for simulating thunder, Dennis was enraged and was reported to have said, To be stone broke means having no money at all, and that expression stems from medieval England, where your inability to pay your debts was considered a cardinal sin and was the reason for many suicides. If skilled tradesmen failed to repay their debts, their tools would be repossessed and their stonework benches broken into pieces. This meant they were unable to work. They were also sometimes sentenced to hard labour in prison, where they were forced to break up stones and rocks.
Being stone broke later became associated with anyone who had no money. The straight and narrow means proper conduct and moral integrity, and that phrase comes from the Bible. It was formally straight and narrow, with straight meaning narrow or confining, as in a straitjacket.
The book of Matthew reads, It describes the way and the gate to heaven as being narrow, meaning that one must tread carefully in order to make it there and enter heaven. To take a rain check means to decline an invitation but leave the option to take it up another time, and it began in the world of baseball in America in the late 1870s. The attendance of baseball games at the time during winter months was low, but the fans did not want to shell out and pay for a full price of a ticket even though they loved the game. To stop this, the games administrators began the practice of allowing fans to leave because of bad weather up to a certain point in the match, and then reuse their ticket on another day. This way the fans didn't forfeit the fare and got to watch an entire game.
It was known as taking a rain check, and the concept was actually formalised in 1890 in the constitution of the National League. To take someone for a ride means to cheat or deceive them, and it originated during the era of prohibition in America. During the 1920s, criminality was high, with gangs dealing in bootlegging and other illegal activities. Competition for market share was strong and gang warfare was rife. Any rival gang member who displeased another chief would commonly be invited by a henchman to go for a ride. The idea was that the men would drive in a car to a secluded place where they could talk matters over and resolve differences.
But this was usually just a cover, and the victim rarely returned. And what a delight. A great job on the production by Greg Hengler. And by the way, you can hear Andrew Thompson time and time again. We've done a whole series with him, practically his whole book. Go to our website, OurAmericanStories.com, search for Andrew's work, and you can hear it all. We've done so many good pieces like this. The book, Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town, read the curious origins of everyday sayings and fun phrases. In essence, the story and part of the American language called English, here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 18:23:58 / 2023-02-17 18:27:45 / 4