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.

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.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

  • Hobnob.

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.

  • Hodgepodge.

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: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

The way it works is, people use old saying and expressions, but have no idea whatsoever where they came from (or is some cases, what’s even begin said).

In my own ongoing fascination with exploring this area of the English language, here’s another list and a bit of information regarding the possible origin of each.

•Your name is mud.

Whether it’s his, her, your or my name, everyone knows if it’s mud it’s not a positive thing.

One school of thought is that the phrase began with Dr. Samuel Mudd, who assisted John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., in 1865. Mudd gave medical assistance to Booth, who broke his leg during his escape, and was later convicted and then pardoned for his role in the murder.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

Another is that it originated some 40 years earlier with a passage in a British book indicating your name is (or will be) dirty as mud if you do something wrong or bad.

Either way, it ain’t good.

•Red handed.

It’s well known that when someone is “caught red-handed,” they’re caught in the act of doing something sneaky, wrong or even illegal. The saying probably began with similar meaning, as hundreds of years ago a murderer might literally have red hands stained by a victim’s blood. It likely launched with something like “taken red-handed,” and evolved into the “caught” version.

•Easy as pie.

The phrase can frequently be heard in descriptions of something pleasurable or requiring little effort. It probably dates back to the 1800s and the pleasure and ease associated with eating a scrumptious pie.

•To a T.

A saying certainly recognizable as referring to something working or fitting well, its origin is sketchy at best. Possibilities include everything from golf tees, to t-squares, to completing the letter “t” by crossing it, to a phrase from an early 17th century play, “I’ll quote him to a tittle.”

No Internet back then, so no conclusive documentation.

•Get your goat.

A commonly used saying that we all know means to annoy, irritate or anger someone. It’s another example of slang of somewhat unknown origin.

Maybe it came from the horseracing world’s past, when goats were placed with racehorses to keep them calm. If someone wanted a given mount to perform badly, they might have removed its goat.

Then again, it may have begun centuries ago in France, when taking a peasant’s goat would have been a catastrophic hit to their income.

Then again, it might stem from the word “goad,” which means irritate.

Then again – aw, heck, this is really getting my goat.

•Egg on your face.

It’s widely accepted that if a person has egg on their face, they’ve done something silly or embarrassing.

Among the possibilities for its origin are stage actors being greeted by a shower of eggs by an unappreciative audience. Another dates back to when wealthy people ate soft-boiled eggs and the yellow yolk was visible on a person’s lips or beard after missing the mark a bit.

•Eat crow.

When someone is tabbed with making a mistake or an erroneous decision, someone else might hope they pull the humility card and admit it, by doing this.

The phrase it yet another without indisputable origin, but since eating crow is largely thought of as something undesirable (actually, yucky), it could easily have become linked to a person’s unwanted task of acknowledgement and apology for a mistake


The origins of this odd word associated with noise, protest or commotion are – again – far less than “written in stone.” But it may have started in the 1700s in northern England and Scotland, with the word “hollo” or “hullo” (meaning “hello”), being combined with a similar, rhyming partner, with the end result forming a way of expressing the uproars common in those parts during those days.

Maybe the current American slang version came from wild times in the Ozarks, who knows?

•Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.

My dad sometimes said this meaning I shouldn’t do something out of spite or revenge that would cause more harm to me than someone I was mad at. It’s an ancient concept that even shows up in a Latin proverb at the turn of the 13th century that basically said, “he who cuts off his nose takes poor revenge for a shame inflicted on him.”

The modern version of the phrase became popular in England in the 19th century.

There are plenty more old sayings left (like thousands), so stay tuned for part 9.

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

Because I like this stuff, here’s another set of old sayings and expressions with descriptions of their origins (or possible origins).

Ballpark figure

Widely known as a rough estimate or approximation, the phrase’s origins are sketchy, but it might have begun with baseball stadium public address announcers providing an estimate of attendance. Then again, it could have begun in the early days of the space race, returning a spacecraft to Earth was not an exact science and a craft was said to be “in the ballpark” if it landed within the pre-designated area.

Break a leg

A phrase often used to wish theatrical performers good luck before they go on stage (especially on an opening night). Stage actors and actresses are well known for sharing a belief in superstitions (or at least for portraying such belief), and therefore steer clear of wishing someone good luck because it might result in bad luck. The term “break a leg” apparently stems from the practice of wishing a thespian bad luck so the opposite will occur.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

Diamond in the rough

Commonly used for years to refer to something or someone whose good qualities are hidden, the expression is based on the idea that the beauty of a diamond can’t be seen when it’s rough, or not yet cut or polished.

In cahoots

Easily recognized as meaning partnered with or working with, the origin of this old saying likely stems from one of two French words: “Cahute,” meaning a cabin or a poor hut, or “cohorte,” which originally meant a band of soldiers, and is where the English word “cohort” comes from (again having to do with partnership or affiliation).


A lot of us live in them in these parts, but not many know where the term came from. It’s derived from the Filipino word “bundok,” which means mountain. The popular expression began with American military personnel serving in the Philippines in the early 1900s.

How do you like them apples?

A phrase often used in boasting about something that has just taken place (as if to say “how do you like that?”), it more than likely originated during World War I with the “toffee apple,” a trench mortar bomb resembling an apple with a stick in it that was sometimes used to destroy tanks. The phrase would be yelled after an “apple” took out an enemy, even though the enemy could well have been in no condition to answer.

Egg on

Meaning to encourage someone to do something (usually foolish or unadvisable), the phrase comes from ancient Anglo-Saxon language where the term “eggian” meant to “spur on.” In old Norse language, the word “eggja” had a similar meaning, “to incite.”  The terms were eventually grafted into the English language, transformed into the still common phrase, “egg on,” and took on the more mischievous meaning.

To the nines

Recognized as meaning “to the highest degree” or “to perfection,” the idiom is most commonly associated with attire, as in “dressed to the nines.” Its origin could stem from the fact that that tailors long ago used nine yards of material to make a suit. But it might also have resulted from sharp-looking uniforms worn by the 99th Regiment of Foot, a British Army infantry group formed in 1824.

Turn the tables

Generally accepted as meaning reversing someone’s fortunes in someone else’s favor, the saying actually originated with board games.

Backgammon and other games belong to a class referred to as “tables,” a general name given to those played on a board with dice. If a game isn’t going in a player’s favor, they would have to metaphorically “turn the tables” to win (or in other words, mount a “comeback”).

There you go. That’s some good information, right there. Make sure to share it.

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

Hearing idioms– a.k.a. old sayings, slang, expressions – used in every-day conversation has always caught my interest, and finding out how and where they began has over the years become somewhat of a hobby.

It’s impossible to know for sure what the origins of some old sayings are because the information has through the centuries been either lost or unrecognizably blurred. But it’s nonetheless cool to have at least some idea about the background of some of the strange expressions that are both widely used and largely taken for granted.

We did this about a year ago, but just for fun, here’s a look at another randomly selected handful of English language idioms, some of which might be more commonly used than others, but all of which can at times be heard in ordinary conversation.



––Another one bites the dust. Easily recognized as having to do with death, the phrase “bite the dust” came from a translation of a passage in the “The Iliad,” an ancient Greek poem about war between the Greeks and Trojans traditionally attributed to Homer. It was a poetic way of describing the death of a warrior.

––Hat trick. Often used to refer to a soccer player or hockey player scoring three goals in one game, the phrase began in another sport: cricket. When a bowler took three wickets in successive deliveries, he was given a new hat by his club.

––It will cost you an arm and a leg. In the days before cameras, a person’s image could either be sculpted or painted. Painters would often base their prices not on how many people were to be painted, but how many limbs. The more arms and legs in a picture, the higher the price (which is why people in old paintings sometimes have their arms behind their backs).

––Jay walker. Used to describe a person who crosses a roadway in a reckless or illegal manner, the label stems from jaybirds that would become confused when they left their rural digs and entered an urban area. City people would make fun of the birds’ erratic behavior and how they would even endanger their own well being by walking almost anywhere, including into traffic.

––Mind your Ps and Qs. At local taverns and pubs, people drank from pint and quart-sized receptacles, and it was a bar maid’s job to keep an eye on who was drinking from which size container (the p-size or the q-size) and keep the drinks coming.

––Pot luck. We’ve all gone to large gatherings featuring “pot luck” meals where attendees all bring a prepared dish. But long ago people would put all kinds of food in a big pot and cook it, and when you sat down for dinner with friends or other families, you hoped for good pot luck because you were never really sure what you were being served.

––Raining cats and dogs. When houses had thatched roofs made of thick straw with no wood underneath, cats and other small animals would at times live in the roof because it was the only place where they could stay warm. Rainfall would result in slippery conditions and animals would slip and fall off the roof.

––Red tape. We all know what someone means when they say something involved “a lot of red tape.” Long ago, official documents were bound in red tape.

––Show your true colors. When pirate ships roamed the open seas, they would often lure an intended victim into a false sense of security by displaying a false flag. When the victim could no longer escape, they would show their true colors.

––The bitter end. The cable attached to ships’ anchors was wrapped around posts called bitts. If you let out all of the cable, you had reached the bitter end of your resources.

––Turn over a new leaf. Now familiar as a way express making a fresh start, it refers to turning the page (or leaf) of a book.

––White elephant. Long ago in Siam (now Thailand), white or pale elephants were very valuable. A king might sometimes give one to a person he disliked, which might seem a wonderful gift, but it was actually a punishment because it cost so much to keep.

––Dirt poor/threshold. In some cultures, people commonly lived in houses with dirt floors, and only the wealthy peoples’ floors were made of something else. Many well-to-do folks’ homes had slate flooring that would become slippery during wet winter months, so they would spread straw – or thresh – on it. As the winter wore on, enough thresh piled up that it would slip outside when the door was opened. In turn, a piece of wood would be placed in the doorway to hold back the thresh.

––Graveyard shift/dead ringer/saved by the bell. When space to bury dead people was running low in old-time England, coffins were dug up and reused and the bones stored in a bone-house. One out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside, indicating that people were being buried alive.
To solve the problem, a string would be tied to the wrist of a supposed corpse, which was led through the coffin and attached to a bell above ground. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell. If a bell was heard, the fortunate person ringing it was called a dead ringer, and was saved by the bell.

––Mind your own bee’s wax/crack a smile/losing face. Long ago, personal hygiene wasn’t so great, so many men and women developed acne scars by adulthood. Some women would put bee’s wax on their face to smooth out their complexions, and if a woman began to stare at another woman’s face she was told, “mind your own bee’s wax.” When a woman smiled, her facial wax might crack, and sitting too close to a fire could melt the wax, hence the third expression.

The idioms listed here are only “a drop in the bucket” compared to the number that are used with at least some regularity. By paying a bit of attention when listening to people talk, it’s not hard to notice all manner of “mumbo jumbo” being substituted for standard words and phrases. In fact, it’s a “piece of cake.”

Most people who use idioms never even consider why they’re doing so, but the fact that the practice comes virtually “out of the blue” is part of what makes it so interesting.

Not that usage or origins of old sayings really matters. They’re just “par for the course” in the English language and folks really aren’t “pulling your leg” by saying them.

Think about that tonight when you “hit the hay.”

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

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.

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.