I never tire of examining the origins of the zillions of old sayings, idioms and slang words we who speak English so often use in every day conversation.

Here’s a look at some more.

  • In the buff.

Most people are this way when they get out of the shower, right?

The origin of the phrase comes from something very different than nudity.

A buff-coat was a light leather tunic worn by English soldiers hundreds of years ago (through the 1500s). The original meaning of the saying was simply to be wearing such a coat, which Shakespeare even references in a 1590 play.

The current meaning is a reference to the color of Caucasians’ skin, which is somewhat like the light brownish-yellow of buff. This 180-degree transformation of the phrase was first recorded by a well-known writer (Thomas Dekker) in 1602.

I love it when old sayings come from even older sayings that pretty much meant something opposite.

  • Rhyme or reason.

We all know that when something is done without this, it’s absent of justification or sensibility.

Doug Davison

   Doug Davison

The saying has apparently meant pretty much the same thing since its inception, and started in French in the late 1400s before being picked up by English about a century later. I was hoping to nail down the “rhyme” part, but I guess there’s no rhyme or reason it’s in there.

  • Peachy.

Not only is the peach the state fruit of Georgia (even though substantially more of them grow in South Carolina), the word commonly stands for something going well, feeling good or that kind of thing.

Oddly enough, the meaning of the idiom stems from the practice of eating peaches. Apparently, there are versions that produce a natural high by interfering with lipotin receptors in the brain. This strain of peaches were often sold as a drug until being outlawed in the 1940s.

When “high” from eating them, people would often say that they were feeling “peachy.”

Since cocaine used to be an ingredient in Coca-Cola, maybe some folks back in the day considered a Coke and a peach a their “power lunch.”

  • Swimmingly.

Ranking high on my list of strange old sayings, it’s well known that if something is going this way it’s going well, with ease or successfully.

The common use of the adverb can be traced back to the early 1800s, when movement through water was considered generally smooth, especially compared to the “clomping” of walking on land.

A written piece from 1824 said, “The interview went off very swimmingly.” Not just swimmingly, but VERY swimmingly.

Now that’s smooth.

  • Fiddlesticks.

My mom would sometimes say this when something went a little haywire.

The term literally stems from “fiddle sticks,” the bows used to play violins, which were called “fydylstyks” in the 1300s. The word became associated with absurdity or nonsense when it was used that way by an English play writer in the 17th century.

  • Cooties.

I recall this word being used when I was young (all those years ago) to describe something – or more often somebody – who “had” something that was yucky (like a disease).

The word probably originated from Southeast Asian languages in which the word “kutu” refers to a parasitic biting insect. The term was also by British soldiers during World War I to refer to lice that proliferated in battlefield trenches.

It’s actually a bug – who knew? I guess that’s why there were big bugs in that game I had when I was a kid.

  • Scuttlebutt.

These days, someone might go to the local café to hear the latest “scuttlebutt” about what’s going on around town, because we know it’s a form of interesting news or gossip.

The term comes from a combination of a pair of nautical words: “scuttle” (to make a hole in a ship’s hull that causes it to sink) and “butt” (a cask used to hold drinking water in the days of big wooden ships).

The butt was also “scuttled” with a hole so water could be accessed, so sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt. Interesting how now the gossip IS the scuttlebutt.

  • Gone to pot.

Certainly, something that has gone this route is no longer as good as it used to be or generally just no good.

As with many modern idioms, there are more than one possible origins of this common phrase. Maybe the best one is that in the early days industrial mass-production, assembly-line workers would sometimes find a defective metal part not suitable for use. The sub-par part would subsequently be sent back to the smelting room to be melted down in the large smelting pot and re-cast a second time.

  • Shenanigans.

While we all know it means trickery or mischief, we’ll have to settle for wondering where the word came from, because time has apparently covered up any definitive answer.

Possibilities include the Spanish word “chanada” (a shortened form of charranada, meaning trick or deceit) the German word “schenigelei” (a peddler’s slang for work or craft) or the related German slang “schinäglen,” or perhaps the Irish word “sionnach,” meaning fox.

You know, it doesn’t really matter where any of these came from anyway. As Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Wow, Shakespeare twice in one column. Now that’s some refined classiness right there.

Or just good old shenanigans.

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

Advertisements