I can’t help it. I keep hearing people use old sayings (idioms) and I wonder where they came from (not the people – the sayings).

In no particular order, here’s another handful of old sayings and (possible) originations to ponder.

•Stuffed to the gills. My wife sometime says she feels that way after we finish a meal at one of our favorite eating establishments. Often used to refer to something (or someone) being full, the idiom apparently has simplistic origins, coming from a description of how fish are often prepared before cooking. When they’re sliced and filled with herbs, spices, or other tidbits, they’re usually stuffed all the way to their gills.

•It’s all Greek to me. Typically spoken when something isn’t understandable, the saying may stem from a similar Latin phrase, “Graecum est; non legitur,” which translated means, “It’s Greek, therefore it can’t be read.” The phrase was used by monk scribes in the Middle Ages, as knowledge of the Greek alphabet and language was dwindling among religious folks who copied manuscripts.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

•Go for broke. Easily recognizable as meaning to try everything possible or do the last thing possible in a final attempt to reach a goal or accomplish an end, this phrase can be traced to Hawaii. It was a “Pidgin English” reference to betting on dice, made famous after World War II by the U.S. Army 442nd infantry’s motto.

•Back to square one. Certainly recognizable as meaning starting over (commonly as a result of failure), this saying may not be very old and was probably popularized in the mid-1900s from children’s games like or hopscotch or the board game Snakes and Ladders.

•Down to the wire. A phrase that is often associated with a sporting competition in which two teams or individuals closely battle it out until the end, its origin can in fact be found in the realm of sports, specifically horse racing. During the latter part of the 1800s (before the days of digital cameras, freeze frames and instant replay), American racetracks typically had a wire strung across the track above the finish line to help officials decide which horse’s nose crossed the line first in what now would be called a “photo finish.”

•Driving me nuts. In the mid to late-1800s, the slang meaning of the word “nut” was a person’s head. From there, the word also acquired the meaning of someone who was not acting right in the head, so a person acting strangely might be described as “nuts” or being “off their nut.” From there, well, trying to figure out the saying’s entire chronology might drive you nuts.

•Greased lightning. An expression that was definitely in use during the 1800s but could date back even further, it obviously refers to something fast. Even back then, grease was well known its ability to make things work better and faster, and lightning was well known for its speed. So the idea is, if you grease a lightning bolt you get even faster lightning bolt.

•Let her rip. Dating back to the beginning of the 19th century or even earlier, this old saying is one of those with two possible meanings, either to give someone permission to start something or simply increase speed.

Basically, “her” is a word often used in reference to vehicles or machinery and the word “rip” is sometimes associated with speed or quickness. In turn, the phrase can mean to go faster or to fire up the engine, although it is not uncommon to hear it used at the beginning of special moments, activities or events.

•Scot free. Well known as a reference to getting away freely from payment, punishment, or any number of other undesirable circumstances or consequences, this idiom is believed to have its origins in the 12th century. In England during the 1100s, a scot was a form of tax, so if someone was somehow able to avoid paying, they were getting away – well you get the idea.

•In the same boat. An expression widely accepted as meaning to experience the same situation or condition as someone else, it was first used by the ancient Greeks in reference to risks shared by all the passengers in a small boat at sea.

•Loose cannon. It’s a well-known phrase used to refer to an unpredictable person or thing that could cause damage if not kept in check by others. Centuries ago, cannons on wooden warships were mounted on rollers and secured with rope in order to prevent damage from their recoil when fired. Obviously, a loose cannon was one that had become unrestrained and was rolling dangerously on a ship’s deck.

•Pipe down. Yet another old saying with a nautical background, this one is well known as a way to request that someone be quiet. Long ago, signals on sailing ships were given to the crew by sounding the boatswain’s pipe (or whistle). One such signal was “piping down the hammocks,” which was time for the sailors to go below decks and retire for the night. Also, when an officer wanted a sailor to be dismissed below he would have him “piped down.” Same thing if there was a disturbance onboard ship – officers could end it by sending the crew below.

So there you go. Next time you hear these old sayings, you might feel a little closer to them.

Not that that amounts to a “hill of beans” (here we go again…).

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

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