Simply because I like this kind of stuff, here’s another look at where some old sayings and phrases – a.k.a. idioms – may or may not have come from. Realistically, it doesn’t matter where they came from – it’s just cool to have some sort of idea.

•Vicious circle. Often mis-spoken as “vicious cycle,” the two-word phrase basically refers to a self-perpetuating process that returns to its starting point with no improvement from when it began. It was a name given by 18th century logicians to a misleading, deceptive proof: A depends on B, B depends on C, C depends on A.

•Down and out. Commonly associated with a person or people who are experiencing hard times or poverty, the phrase can be traced back to late 1800s boxing as a means of describing a prize fighter who had been knocked unconscious.

•Shoot the breeze. First appearing on the idiom radar in the early 1900s, the phrase is synonymous with idle chit-chat. It might have originated through cowboys firing gunshots at into the air to kill idle time.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

•Between a rock and a hard place. Well known as a way to express a situation with multiple undesirable solutions, this phrase originated in California in the early 1900s when miners were on strike. A man in power refused their demands, and instead deported many them to other parts of the country. The miners involved were given the option of either working in unfavorable conditions, or going on strike and risking unemployment. They were therefore between a rock (mineshaft) and a hard place (a new home where they would have to hope to find employment).

•Paint the town red. Associated with raucous, mostly nocturnal behavior, the saying probably dates back to around 1837, when an infamous British troublemaker and his accomplices spent an evening vandalizing an English town. Some of group’s wild activities included painting various buildings a lovely shade of red.

•Up to snuff. Chewing tobacco was once immensely popular, but was expensive and therefore only affordable to wealthy people. In turn, a man who was considered “up to snuff” had the sophistication, brains and – of course – money necessary to fully enjoy (and appreciate) fine tobacco products.

•Chaise lounge. In French, a long chair is a “chaise longue” (roughly pronounced “shez long”). In butchered American-ese, that thing you lie on next to the pool at your relative’s place in Ohio is a “chaze lounge.”

•Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. A warning against eliminating something good when trying to get rid of something bad, the phrase can be traced back to the 1500s when taking a bath meant sitting in a big tub filled with hot water. The tub was filled once for the entire family, with the man of the house having the privilege of using the clean water. He was followed by all the sons and other men, then the women, and finally the children – with the babies (amazingly) going last. By the time the infants hit the water, it was so dirty you could theoretically lose someone in it – hence the saying (yuck).

•Heard it through the grapevine. The wires in America’s first telegraph stations were often draped and twisted in random patterns. Both professionals and laymen compared the tangled masses’ appearance to that of grapevines.

•Eat humble pie. During the Middle Ages, the lord of a manor would hold a feast after hunting. He would receive the finest cut of meat, but guests of a lower standing were served a pie filled with the entrails and innards, known as “umbles.” Receiving “umble pie” was therefore considered humiliating because it revealed that lower status.

•The whole nine yards. Before a mission, fighter pilots in World War II received a nine-yard long chain of ammunition. So when a pilot used all of his ammunition on one target, he was said to have given it “the whole nine yards.”

•Stealing my/his/her/someone’s thunder. For centuries, theater productions have incorporated various devices to create the sound of thunder, like rolling metal balls down troughs, swirling lead shot around in bowls, and the now widely used shaking or banging sheets of metal. In the 1600s, a playwright invented a new method of producing the sound for a play of his, but the play flopped and was canceled by the production company. He later went to view another play produced by the same company and found his own new method of simulating thunder being used. The precise words of his reaction are not known, but he is said to have exclaimed something like, “That’s MY thunder, by God – the villains will play my thunder, but not my play,” or “Damn them – they will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.” In turn, the phrase synonymous with taking someone else’s credit or using their thoughts or ideas for personal gain was born.

There you go, old saying stuff that’s more than you can shake a stick at. Isn’t that just the bee’s knees.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email:  ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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