Examining the origins of old sayings and expressions (or even their possible origins) never gets old.
And there’s no shortage of material to examine because old sayings are such an integral part of the English language.
Here’s a look at another set.
- Knock on wood.
A widely used phrase and action known as a means of fending off bad luck or “tempting fate” when a person makes an observation or declaration regarding something beyond their control. Its origin stems from a belief hundreds of years ago in several cultures that wood and trees were associated with good spirits, and it was considered good luck to tap trees to alert the “wood spirits” of your presence.
If you’re “hobnobbing,” you’re talking informally, drinking or otherwise socializing with someone else.
The word can be traced back to 16th century England and the terms “habban” (to have) and “nabban” (not to have) when used by people taking turns drinking to each other’s health.
- Bury the hatchet.
Recognized as meaning to settle differences or make peace with an enemy or adversary, this phrase was born of a practice that would take place at the ending of hostilities among or by Native Americans in the Eastern United States, when chiefs of tribes would literally bury a tomahawk.
The phrase is found in English writings from the 1600s, but the practice likely even pre-dates the European settlement of America.
- All get out.
If you hear someone use this old saying, they’re probably emphasizing the extreme nature of what they’re talking about, or maybe pointing out something happening to its utmost.
Its origins are sketchy at best, but Mark Twain used it in his 1884 book, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin” when Huck said, “we got to dig in like all git-out.”
My wife says it pretty often.
- Pandora’s box.
We all know we had better not open it, because we don’t want to face the dire consequences or endure the resulting chaos if we do.
That stands to reason, because it’s an object from Greek mythology (that was actually a large jar) that was given to Pandora – the world’s first woman – and contained all the evils of the world. She got the “box” as a gift at her marriage and was told to never open it. Her curiosity won out (of course) and she unleashed demons upon the Earth.
- Good grief.
An expression accepted as representing surprise, alarm, dismay or some other negative emotion that entered mainstream society via Charles Schultz’ famous Peanuts character, Charlie Brown.
It probably originated as a variance of the term, “good God,” as a way to avoid taking the name of the Lord in vain.
Easily recognized as a reference to things found in the same place that are not really meant to be together, the expression dates back to the 1400s and the similar French word, “hochepot,” that was derived from the verb, “hocher,” meaning “to shake.” Basically, the word referred to a large, deep pot or pan and a stew made up of many different ingredients (often not well suited to be together) all shaken together in it.
- Let the chips fall where they may.
This old saying comes from the world of logging, probably beginning in the late 1800s.
Every time a lumberjack using an axe hits a tree, pieces of wood – chips – scatter. The concept is simple: Don’t worry about the various chips flying around and never mind where they land. Instead, remain focused on the task at hand, which would of course have been chopping down a tree.
Nowadays, the same concept far more widely applied.
- No strings attached.
When something comes without strings attached, we know there’s nothing required of us after receiving it and no need for any form of reciprocation, and no consequences will follow.
The saying originally had a much different, simpler meaning. It can be traced to the 1700s when expensive cloths like silk were imported to Europe and a merchant would mark a flaw in the weave by tying a small string at the bottom.
Even today, a tailor might want some yards of flawless cloth and ask for some with “no strings attached.”
- Ducks in a row.
We’ve all said (or at least heard someone else say) this phrase when referring to completion of preparations or getting organized.
It’s one of those old sayings that could have one of several origins.
One popular theory is that it came from the sport of bowling. Early bowling pins were often shorter and thicker than modern pins, which led to the nickname “ducks.” Before pin resetting machines, pins would be manually put back in place between bowling rounds, so having your “ducks in a row” would mean all the pins were properly placed before the next ball was rolled. Another possibility is the saying came from the world of nature, because mother ducks often arrange their offspring into manageable straight lines before traveling over land or water. Also, natural ducks are know to fly together a v-formation behind a leader, which allows each one to take advantage of reduced wind resistance.
The phrase might even have begun with carnival games in which small caliber rifles or air guns were used knock down moving targets in the shape of ducks, with a conveyor belt system making sure the targets were presented in a consistent, organized (even predictable) row.
For what it’s worth, I like the bowling theory.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. His columns are posted online at www.houstonherald.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.