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“Put A Sock In It” and the Wonderful Origins of Everyday Expressions (Pt. 18)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 3, 2023 3:01 am

“Put A Sock In It” and the Wonderful Origins of Everyday Expressions (Pt. 18)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 3, 2023 3:01 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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Go to to get yours today. Put a sock in it means to be quiet and its origins are with the early days of radio broadcasts and sound recordings. The equipment in the early 1900s was not very sophisticated and the ability to control the volumes of various instruments was limited. When orchestras were recorded in the studios the horn sections tended to be overpowering and completely drowned out the wind and string sections. To combat this, horn players would stuff an actual sock into the mouth of their instrument and if the conductor thought it was necessary he would yell out, put a sock in it.

And then by the 1920s this expression was being used colloquially. To put the dampers on something means to make something less enjoyable or to reduce your enthusiasm for something. And a lot of people actually think the phrase is put a damper on something because of the notion of putting water to dampen out a fire. But it's actually put the dampers on and it began with music as well. A damper is a device used on piano strings. It's operated by a foot pedal and presses against the strings. This reduces the sound of the piano.

When the conductor instructs the orchestra to put the dampers on he wants to tone down the volume of the performance. To be put through the mill means to go through a hardship or rough treatment and it derives from the flour making process in medieval England. Before electricity was invented classical mills were usually powered by water which turned a large wheel. This turned two heavy circular stones which were laid on top of each other. Cereal seeds were fed through the top stone and they would be finely ground to produce flour.

By the 1800s being put through the mill came to refer to a person going through a similar hardship similar to the process of being ground down like a grain in a mill. If you say to someone put your thinking cap on you're telling them to think seriously about a problem or to concentrate. And that expression originated with the judges of the early law courts in England. It was customary at the time for a judge to put a black cap on to show the court that he'd heard all the evidence in a criminal trial. The cap was a signal that the judge was ready to deliberate his verdict before passing sentence.

Because judges were learned men and respected intellectuals the cap was referred to as a thinking cap. And then the expression took on its broader meaning by the mid 19th century. A Pyrrhic victory is a victory gained at too great a cost and it's a phrase that comes from the Greek King Pyrrhus. His army fought the Romans during the Pyrrhic war for control of the Magna Graecia. In one battle in southern Italy in 279 BC Pyrrhus defeated the Romans but he suffered severe losses including most of his principal commanders.

He was later quoted as saying another such victory and we are lost. And that spawned the expression Pyrrhic victory which was used figuratively from the late 1800s. Raining cats and dogs means very hard rain and it has a number of potential origins but the seafaring one is the most compelling. According to an ancient nautical myth it was believed that cats had an influence over storms while dogs were a symbol of the wind. This belief was held by the Vikings. Odin the Norse storm god was frequently shown surrounded by dogs and wolves. And this led early sailors to believe that in any storm the rain was caused by the cats and the winds were brought by the dogs.

So raining cats and dogs came to mean any heavy rain and wind. To read between the lines means to discern a meaning that isn't obvious. And it's an expression that derives from the early days of cryptography in the 19th century. Cryptography involves encoding messages into seemingly normal text. And one of the first techniques used to pass codes was to write the message on every second line and have an unrelated innocent message across all the lines. So when read normally and in its entirety the story was simple and made sense and did not reveal any code.

But it was only when the alternate lines were read that the code was able to be deciphered. If you read the riot act to someone that means you're berating them harshly and that's from the 18th century where reading the riot act would literally happen. It started in 1715 with the riot act which gave British magistrates the authority to label any group of more than 12 people a threat to the peace. When such a group gathered a public official would read aloud a section of the riot act which demanded people immediately disperse themselves and go about their lawful business. Anyone who remained after one hour was subject to removal by force and arrest.

This riot act actually remained in effect until 1973. If you say something's the real McCoy you're saying it's an authentic or genuine personal thing not a substitute. And it's an expression with a number of potential origins that have been hotly contested over the years. The most cogent theory is that it derives from a man named Kid McCoy which was a name used by Norman Selby the American welterweight boxer who dominated the sport in the 1890s. McCoy had many imitators who would use his name in an attempt to capitalise on his popularity. And it became so commonplace for Kid McCoy imposters at fairgrounds that not many people actually believed it was ever the real Kid McCoy. Then years after he retired McCoy was in a bar when he was challenged by a drunk who was much bigger than him. The drunk's friend warned him not to fight McCoy but the drunk didn't believe it was him. Then provoked to his limit McCoy knocked the man out with a single blow.

When he came to the drunk admitted you're right he's the real McCoy. A red herring is a misleading clue and that expression dates from the 18th century. At the time herrings were caught in great numbers and because there was no refrigeration they were preserved by smoking. The smoking process turned the fish a reddish brown colour and also gave it a pungent odour. In an attempt to sabotage a fox hunt people who were against the sport would drag the strong smelling red herring across the trail to mislead the hunting dogs and throw them off the scent. The dogs would often follow the scent of the red herring instead of the fox. And a special thanks to Greg Hengler for the production on the piece and to Andrew Thompson for sharing with us these stories of everyday sayings.

By the way you can get his book Hair of the Dog to paint the town red. The curious origins of everyday sayings and fun phrases at Amazon are the usual suspects. The stories of everyday sayings here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

But we can't do it without you. Our stories are free to listen to but they're not free to make. If you love our stories and America like we do please go to and click the donate button. Give a little. Give a lot. Help us keep the great American stories coming.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-03 04:33:02 / 2023-03-03 04:37:12 / 4

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