Language is a curious thing, constantly evolving. Some of the latest additions to the Merriam-Webster dictionary include: athleisure (clothing designed for exercise and general use) and nomophobia (fear of not having access to a working cell phone). What intrigues me even more than new words and phrases is the origin of sayings such as, “it’s raining cats and dogs,” and “dressed to the nines.” After a bit of research, this is what I discovered about the possible origination of a few common words and expressions.
If someone tells you to “put a sock in it,” you know it’s time to stop talking. In the late nineteenth century, the first gramophones produced sound through large horns. There was no volume button, so if it got too loud, they would use a sock to muffle the noise.
When you are under extreme emotional stress, you may feel “beside yourself.” There is an ancient belief that under difficult circumstances, a person’s soul would separate from the body and walk beside it until the situation righted itself.
“Bury the hatchet” started out quite literally. Before Native Americans agreed to discuss armistice between warring tribes, they would bury their tomahawks. To this day, it still means to make peace.
You know it’s pouring when you hear someone say, “it’s raining cats and dogs.” I once
read something about creatures hanging out in thatched roofs and falling during storms. My latest search turned up a better explanation. According to Teuton mythology, the wind was a giant dog and companion of Odin, the supreme Norse deity. The Teutons believed that during storms, Odin’s dog (the wind) was chasing a cat (the rain), thus Odin was dropping cats and dogs from the sky.
When I am dressed to the nines,” I must be headed somewhere pretty fancy. The term is from an 18th century saying meaning perfection or the highest standards.
Many authors throw in a “red herring” to keep you from figuring out the real solution to a mystery. Originally, criminals would cover their trail with a strong-smelling, smoked, red herring to throw pursuing dogs off their scent.
Translated from the Spanish phrase, sangre azul, blueblood implies an upper class heritage. In the 1800s, the aristocratic Castile families claimed to be pureblooded, with no genetic ties to the ruling Moors. Their proof was their pale skin through which you could see their veins.
I will end in the same way most people finish their day with “hitting the hay.” Early seamen had to provide their own bedding. The merchants sold hay stuffed into canvas covers to the sailors. When purchasing a ship bed, you would ask for a hay. As he went to catch some shuteye, the sailor would say he was going to “hit the hay.”
Hopefully, I have piqued your curiosity and you will continue to explore the origins of our language. Here are a few of the resources on the derivation of words and phrases you can find within the Boone County Public Library system:
Common Phrases and Where They Come From by John Mordock and Myron Korach
Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pajamas by Judy Parkinson
I Love It When You Talk Retro by Ralph Keyes
A Circulation Assistant at the Florence Branch, Suzanne Yowler started her career in journalism and public relations. She established her free-lance writing business after her first son was born almost 20 years ago. English was always Suzanne’s best subject and she considers herself a Grammar Queen.