September 19, 2023 3:03 am
On this episode of Our American Stories, Andrew Thompson shares another slice of his guide to understanding the baffling mini-mysteries of the English language. The book is Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red: The Wonderful Origins of Everyday Expressions and Fun Phrases.
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Here to join us again is Andrew Thompson as he continues to share another slice from his ultimate guide to understanding these many stories, these many mysteries of the English language. To run amok means to engage in wild or erratic behavior and it dates from the 16th century in Malaysia. The Amuko were a band of Malay warriors and they believed that warriors who died in victorious battles became favorites with the gods while warriors that failed were dishonored and killed. This led the men to fight with extreme frenzy and this frenzied fighting fascinated the European explorers of the 18th century. Captain James Cook in fact wrote about them and said to run amok is to get drunk with opium, to sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the amok and any other person that attempts to impede his passage.
Amok then officially became a psychiatric medical condition in 1849 and is still considered one today. Run of the mill means average or ordinary and that expression originated in the early milling towns of England. These great mill towns mass produced wool and cotton which was exported all over the world. It was an extremely large industry and a mill's reputation and profitability was primarily based on the quality of the material it produced.
Quality control checks were essential before the material could be sold but anything coming directly from the mill without having been inspected and graded was known as a run of the mill and was considered inferior. Saved by the bell means at the last minute and this is an expression that has a number of conflicting explanations. One relates to boxing and the bell rung at the end of a round before a knockdown boxer has been counted out to 10.
That allows the box to continue and start at the next round. Another theory is that it stems from a guard at Windsor Castle in the 19th century in England falling asleep while on duty. He denied the charge and in his defence said that he had heard Big Ben chime 13 times at midnight.
The mechanism in the clock was checked and a cog had in fact slipped and he was correct. He had been saved by the bell. But the likely origin actually predates both of these and has the same explanation as the expression for dead ringer. And that is that in the middle ages before the medical profession had fully understood comas people who displayed signs of no life were presumed dead and would be often buried. Sometimes it was later discovered that they'd been buried alive with seeing scratches on the top of the coffin roof if they happened to have been exhumed. People started attaching a string to their loved one's wrist that led to a bell above the ground. If the person woke up underground they were able to ring the bell and be saved.
And there were in fact a number of safety coffins that were registered as patents during the 19th century which lends weight to this theory. See how it pans out means to see what happens. And it's another expression that relates to the mining industry and the California gold rush of the mid-1800s. The early prospectors used a simple technique of panning to look for gold in the rivers and streams. A deposit of sand and gravel from the creek was scooped into a small metal pan and then it was gently agitated with water so that the lighter sand washed over the side while the heavier gold remained at the bottom of the pan.
A prospector would wait and see how each attempt panned out. To set off on the wrong foot means to make a bad start to a relationship or a project. And it dates back to ancient Rome and is one of a number of expressions that relates to the ancient Romans' superstitious belief about anything on the left. They believed the left was evil and in fact the Latin word for left is sinister. In the first century under emperor Nero an order was made that no Roman should enter or leave a building by the left front. They even had guards placed at entrances to public buildings to ensure that the order was adhered to.
But not much enforcement was actually needed as most Romans agreed that to go against the ruling was to flirt with disaster and they rarely set off on the wrong foot. Shake a leg means to hurry up, especially in getting out of bed. And it owes its origins to the British Navy in the 19th century. It was at that time that civilian women were first allowed on board Royal Navy ships. to boost morale and the sailors would be roused at first light with a cry of shake a leg. This was used to distinguish between the men and the women. If a smooth and shapely female leg was presented as opposed to a hairy sailor's leg the lady was permitted to stay in her bunk until all the men were dressed and gone.
To this day shake a leg means to hurry up and get out of bed. To give something short shrift means to give it little consideration and it's often mistakenly said that short shrift means it is short shift but it's short shrift. It's hard to say that more than a few times and it dates from the criminal world of the 17th century. A shrift is a confession given to a priest in order to obtain absolution.
It comes from the verb Shrive the past tense of which is Shrove for Shrove Tuesday when people go to confession. In the 17th century as soon as criminals were convicted and sentenced they were sent to the gallows to be hanged. There was usually a priest waiting with the executioner and the prisoners were allowed a very short time to confess their sins in the last minutes of their life.
They were given a short shrift before they were killed. To show your true colours means to reveal your true intentions or personality and it's yet another nautical expression that dates from the early 18th century in naval warfare where the flag of a ship's home country was called its colours. Under the articles of war that were published in 1757 the ship's captains were obliged to run up their country's flag when going into battle in order to identify the nationality of the ship. But as a method of deceiving the enemy, unscrupulous captains would run up a different flag to fool the opposing captain into believing they were an ally.
By doing this the ship was able to get within firing range and with the element of surprise on his side the captain would only then hoist his actual flag and show his true colours before firing on the enemy. When someone says that's the $64 question they mean it's a crucial question or issue. And it began in America in the 1940s with a radio quiz show Take It or Leave It. It ran from 1940 to 1947 and involved contestants answering increasingly difficult questions. After answering a question correctly the contestant had the choice to either take the money being offered or leave it and have a go at the higher next valued question.
The first question was $1 and it went progressively upwards doubling up to the seventh and final question which was the $64 question. The expression then ended popular use in 1955 when the radio show moved to the more lucrative television program and became the $64,000 question. To have a skeleton in the closet means to have a shameful secret and it has its origins in English medical law. Until the introduction of the Anatomy Act in 1832 it was illegal to dissect a human body for medical research but in contravention of the law some doctors still did use corpses for both research and teaching. So as to avoid detection they were known to store the leftover skeletons in locked closets.
So many in the medical profession had a secret skeleton in the closet. To sleep tight means to sleep well and that phrase stems from a time in England before spring mattresses were invented. In the early mass-produced beds the straw mattresses were held together by ropes that were stretched across the bed frame in a crisscross pattern. After a while the ropes would sag and it was necessary to tighten them. This was done with a forked iron or wooden tool which was turned to mind the ropes tight.
A mattress that had just been tightened was far more comfortable and allowed people to sleep tight. A soap opera is a television serial drama or a real-life situation resembling one. And that expression began in 1920 in America. Amos and Andy was a popular weekly radio show at the time and one of the earliest comedy series. He was broadcast during prime time and Procter and Gamble a prominent soap manufacturer saw the opportunity to obtain widespread exposure and began advertising their products during the breaks in the show. They then went on to sponsor the program and a trend soon developed and other soap manufacturers began sponsoring similar shows.
As a result these serial shows were being called soap operas by the late 1930s. And a great job on the production by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Andrew Thompson and he is the author of Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases and you can go to Amazon.com or all of the usual suspects. The story of our everyday expressions here on Our American Stories. Summer may be over but the beach is open. Whether you're a long time Bachelor fan or have never seen a single show this season of Bachelor in Paradise is for you. The premise of the show is pretty straightforward. You've got 20 beautiful singles living on a beach with one goal to find long lasting love.
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