Because I like this stuff (and because I know I’m not alone), here’s more information about the origin of commonly used old sayings, phrases and idioms, so next time one of them comes out of your mouth, you’ll have a notion of where it came from.

  • Rub the wrong way: We all know that when someone is irritated, bothered or annoyed by something or someone, they are rubbed the wrong way by he, she or it. The phrase goes back to colonial America, when servants were required to wet-rub and dry-rub the boards in oak floors. If that rubbing was done against the grain, streaks would form, making the wood look bad (which could certainly be irritating to a homeowner).

    Doug Davison

    Doug Davison

  • Moot point: I like how the meanings of words and phrases can sometimes change drastically over the centuries – even to the point of taking on a completely opposite meaning. Take moot point, for example (sometimes mispronounced “mute” point). Today it means something that doesn’t matter or is academic, so to speak. But it comes from the Saxon word “moot” or “mote,” which meant a meeting to discuss things. A moot point was one that needed to be discussed or debated – and obviously mattered.
  • The powers that be: Referring to individuals or groups who collectively wield some sort of authority, it comes directly from a phrase used by the Apostle Paul in the Bible (Romans 13:1).
  • Pull out all the stops: Meaning to do everything possible to prevail or be successful in a given situation (kind of like “leaving everything on the table”), the phrase came from church pipe organs. Pulling out a “stop” allows air to flow through a pipe resulting in a sound, so pulling out all of them allowed for maximum performance.
  • Rub salt into the wound: Another phrased that has gone the opposite route, it now means to add to the woes of someone who is losing, has lost, or is in some manner down (so it’s used in a negative fashion). But it originated in the days when salt was rubbed into wounds as an antiseptic (which would be a good thing).
  • Spick and span: Recognized as meaning clean or neat, the original form of the saying was “spick and span new.” A “span” was a wood shaving, and if something was newly constructed there would be wood chips visible and it was referred to as “span new.” “Spick” is an old word for a nail, and new spicks would be shiny.
  • Butter someone up (or butter them up): Well known as meaning to flatter someone or offer up a compliment, the phrase can be traced to an ancient custom in India of seeking favor by throwing balls of butter at statues of gods.
  • Cat got your tongue?: Commonly used when a person is at a loss for words, there are at least two possible origins of this phrase. The first refers to a “cat-o’-nine-tails,” a whip used for flogging by the English Navy that caused so much pain its recipients were left speechless. The second refers to an ancient Middle Eastern punishment of cutting out the tongues of liars and blasphemers and feeding them to cats.
  • Giving the cold shoulder: Another one that has traveled the opposite path, it’s widely accepted as meaning an unkind (or rude) way of telling someone he or she isn’t welcome. It’s origin stems from a polite gesture in medieval England when, after a feast, a host would let his guests know it was time to leave by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton, or pork.
  • Run amuck: Frequently heard to describe someone who has gone berserk, the saying originates from the Malaysian word “amoq,” which describes the behavior of tribesmen who, under the influence of opium, became wild, rampaging mobs that attacked anybody in their path.
  • Hair of the dog: An old belief is that hangovers can be cured by having another drink in the morning. The phrase might have originated in the 1500s when an accepted medical practice for treating a bite by a rabid dog was to dress the wound with the burnt hair of that same dog. The practice was recommended for dog bites for about 200 years before its effectiveness was doubted.
  • More than you can shake a stick at: Used to mean having more of something than is needed, or to describe plentiful bounty, this centuries-old phrase comes from farmers controlling their sheep by shaking their staffs to indicate where the animals should go. When farmers had more sheep than they could control, well, you get the idea.

So, once again, there you have it – another set of trivial information that might or might not be based on fact or reality and may or may not be of any practical value.

There’s about a billion old sayings to go, so maybe we’ll look at a few more in the future.

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

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