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“Knock on Wood & Kick the Bucket” and the Wonderful Origins of Everyday Expressions (Pt. 11)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 10, 2023 3:02 am

“Knock on Wood & Kick the Bucket” and the Wonderful Origins of Everyday Expressions (Pt. 11)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 10, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here again with his reoccurring series is Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red: The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases author, Andrew Thompson, as he continues to share another slice from his ultimate guide to understanding these baffling mini mysteries of the English language.

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With a deal like this, they won't last long. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show. And up next, we continue with our recurring series about the curious origins of everyday sayings.

Here to join us again is Andrew Thompson, as he continues to share another slice from his ultimate guide to understanding these mini mysteries of the English language. It's a funny old world is an expression indicating an acceptance of or resignation to a situation. And it was first used in the 1934 comedy film You're Telling Me. That film starred W.C. Fields and at one point he says, it's a funny old world.

A man is lucky if he gets out alive. The popularity of Fields quickly made the expression commonplace and it's been quoted ever since, most notably by the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after her decision to quit politics in 1990. Alluding to the fact that she had never lost an election in her life, yet had been forced to stand down, she said, it's a funny old world isn't it? It's all Greek to me means unable to understand something or something doesn't make sense. And it originates from the medieval Latin proverb which means it is Greek, it cannot be read. The phrase was used by monks scribes at the time as they copied manuscripts in monastic libraries.

Knowledge of the Greek language was dwindling and very few people could read it. The expression is yet another one that was brought into widespread usage by Shakespeare in his 1599 play The Julius Caesar which contains the line, but for my own part it was Greek to me. The expression John Hancock to mean a signature derives from the famous American merchant and statesman who lived from 1737 to 1793. He was Governor of Massachusetts and President of the Second Continental Congress and he was one of the men obviously who signed the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. He had a very flamboyant signature and it's by far the largest on the document and is nearly five inches long.

Because of that his name became synonymous for any signature and it's said when he signed the document he said there I guess King George or John Bull will be able to read that without his spectacles. A kangaroo court is a mock court that disregards due legal process and that expression originated with the California gold rush in 1849. Crime at the time was common and there were many illegal gold prospectors who seized the mining claims of others. They were known as claim jumpers.

The gold mines had a lawless atmosphere but informal courts were set up to dispense a rough and ready form of justice to the claim jumpers. There was a large contingent of Australian prospectors seeking their fortune in California at the time and this coupled with the reference to jumping gave birth to the naming of the kangaroo court. The term then spread and was used for any sort of mock tribunal. The common expression keep it up means to continue do something and is often used as a form of encouragement and it dates from the 1700s and the game of badminton. The idea of the game is to hit the small piece of rubber attached with feathers known as a shuttlecock over a high net using a small tennis style racket.

The shuttlecock must not hit the ground at any time and if it does the point is lost. Spectators at badminton events when the game first started would often shout keep it up during the rallies and the phrase soon came to mean any form of encouragement. Keeping up with the Joneses means striving to match your neighbour in terms of possessions and wealth and that expression originated from a popular comic strip of that name that was published in the New York Globe.

It began in 1913 and ran for 28 years bolstered by 1915 cartoon film adaptation that played in cinemas throughout America. It was written by Arthur Popp Maman and chronicled his experiences of living in suburbia. Jones was a common surname at the time and was meant as a generic term for neighbours. Years later Maman wrote we'd been living way beyond our means in our endeavour to keep up with the will to do class.

I also noticed that most of our friends were doing the same. I decided it would make good comic strip material. To kick the bucket means to die and it is sometimes said to originate from the theory that when people hang themselves they stand on a bucket with a noose around their neck and then kick the bucket away. However a more likely explanation comes from the slaughtering of animals. In the 18th century the wooden beam that was used to hang animals up by their feet for slaughter was called a bucket.

As the animals were killed they would often struggle and spasm their feet kicking the bucket. The kiss of death means an action that will lead to certain failure and that expression began with the bible and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. In the book of Matthew Judas kisses Jesus on the cheek as a way of identifying him to the Roman soldiers. As a result of that kiss Jesus was arrested and crucified. This practice found its way to the mafia bosses of Sicily. A kiss from the don meant the person would soon be killed.

Originally known as a Judas kiss the expression was changed in the 1940s. To knock off work means to finish work at the end of the day and that expression began with the American slave trade in the early 19th century. River boats transported slaves to and from the plantations.

These boats were rowed by the slaves themselves. To keep the men rowing in unison a drummer would beat out the rhythm on a block of wood. When it was time to change shifts he would knock off a distinctive hit to signify it was time to stop. This was later used in English factories when knocking a mallet on a wooden bench indicated the end of a shift. If someone says knock on wood they're expressing a wish that something will or will not occur. Sometimes phrased as touch wood it's an expression that dates back to the ancient druids. They were a race that inhabited England before the Romans and they worshipped trees in particular oaks and held the firm belief that protective spirits lived within trees. They believed trees were sources of good and warded off evil spirits. People in need of good luck would go and touch a tree and others actually wore small pieces of oak on necklaces so the wood was always in contact with the skin.

The expression became commonplace in the 1850s and Winston Churchill once said that he always liked to be within arm's length of a piece of wood. To knock the spots off something means to beat easily or completely outdo and it began in America in the mid 1800s. Carnivals were commonplace all over the country at the time and the most popular sideshow was the shooting gallery. All comers would test their marksmanship skills and the most used target was a playing card the face of which had spots or marks on it to indicate the suit or value of the card. The object was to shoot through all the spots and remove as many as possible.

Anyone who could knock all the spots of a card would win the major prize. To know the ropes means to be well versed in something and it has nautical origins and started with the early sailing vessels of the 1600s. They were controlled by many ropes and knots which were all connected in a complicated web. Sailors had to learn the intricate rigging required to raise lower and maneuver the sails in order to speed up slow down and change direction. The ropes were in constant use and to fully master these tasks took years of experience.

It was only then that a sailor could claim to know the ropes. To knuckle down means to diligently apply oneself and that expression originated with the game of marbles. A marble also known as a tor is held between a crooked index finger and flicked by the thumb. It is an essential rule of the game that the knuckle of the index finger must be placed down on the ground before taking a shot. The knuckle must also be placed in the exact position that the player's previous marble ended.

A player breaking these rules will be quickly told to concentrate and knuckle down. A lame duck is an ineffective person or business or a weakling and that expression dates from the mid 1700s and began in the financial world. It originated with the London Stock Exchange and applied to those who were bankrupt or could not pay their debts. They were forced to waddle out of the exchange alley in disgrace like lame ducks. The first known mention of the term was in writing by Horace Walpole's 1761 letter when he wrote, do you know what a bull and a bear and a lame duck are? The expression transferred to America in reference to ineffectual politicians by the mid 1800s. And a special thanks to Greg Hengler for the production on the piece and a special thanks to Andrew Thompson for this series on the curious origins of everyday sayings.

The story of the English language or at least its curious sayings and phrases here on Our American Stories. This February Xfinity Flex is unlocking premium entertainment for you to try every single week. No strings attached. Celebrate during Black History Month with shows like Unsung the Decades. Snuggle up during Valentine's Day with a Lifetime Movie Club pick like Harry and Meghan A Royal Romance or crank up the action with Godfather of Harlem from MGM Plus.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-10 04:21:58 / 2023-02-10 04:27:05 / 5

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