No matter where you are – at work, in a restaurant, in a store or even at home – you’ll here old sayings and adages used with relative frequency.

The fact that they’re a common part of life is without question, but where they originate is seldom known. Here’s a look at some of them and where they might have come from.

  • Lowball

When negotiating a price on a home, car or other item, a buyer might offer an amount considered to be this by the seller in an attempt to get a really good deal.

The saying probably stems from a version of draw poker in which the player having the lowest-ranking hand wins the pot. Basically, the winner of a hand “lowballed” everyone.

  • The worm has turned

    Doug Davison

       Doug Davison

Pretty well known to mean a reversal of fortune (whether from good to bad or bad to good), the expression was first used to convey the notion that even the meekest of creatures will retaliate or get revenge if pushed too far.

The phrase was first appeared in a renowned writer’s work in the mid-1500s, and was famously used by William Shakespeare in one of his plays.

  • Tickled pink

This phrase not surprisingly refers to the fact that when some people are highly excited, their skin literally changes color – just like when they blush. It more or less amounts to becoming so pleased that the blood vessels dilate, more blood flows close to the skin and the person appears redder than usual.

  • Off the schneid

When you hear this phrase, you probably understand the user is referring to the ending of a losing or bad luck streak or the replacement of a series of negatives occurrences with something positive.

“Schneid” is actually short for “schneider,” a term originally used in the card game, gin, meaning to prevent an opponent from scoring points. “Schneider” came from German, where it means, “tailor.” The original gin-related meaning was that if you were “schneidered,” you were “cut” (as if by a tailor) from contention in the game.

Schneider first appeared card-playing jargon in the late 1800s.

  • Wazzoo

When someone thinks they have too much of something, they might say they have it “out the wazzoo.”

If someone doesn’t like something, they might say it’s a “pain in the wazzoo.”

There’s “up the” versions and other versions, too.

Somewhat expectedly, the term began a long time ago as slang for the part of the body you sit on (according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

  • Posh

Easily recognizable as meaning elegant, fancy or upscale, the term goes back to the day when wealthy passengers on ships traveling between England and India would have “POSH” written by their bookings, standing for “port out, starboard home.” That way they were housed in the more desirable cabins on the shady side of the ship, both on the way east and on the return trip west.

  • Snazzy

Speaking of posh, if something is that it might also be this.

The first documented use of the word was in 1901 in a New Zealand magazine in an article about George H. Snazelle, a famous English singer, entertainer and actor. He, of course, was referred to as “Snazzy,” and the rest (as they say, whoever “they” are) is history.

  • Hunky dory

Certainly we all know this phrase means OK, nice, satisfactory and the like.

While its existence isn’t even close to clandestine or complicated, its origins are. But it could well be that it’s a combination of slang from multiple cultures.

The “hunky” part might be from a mid-1800s term, “hunkey” (meaning satisfactory), which probably came from a New York City street game slang word, “hunk” (meaning “in a safe position”).

The “dory” part might have begun with “Honcho Dori,” a street in Yokohama, Japan, where sailors would go to enjoy themselves.

  • Cop

This term that obviously refers to a law enforcement officer is actually an acronym for “constable on patrol.”

  • Bobby

A constable on patrol in England might be referred to in this manner.

That began with Robert (Bobby) Peel, a British politician who was prime minister in in the 1830s and 1840s.

  • Son of a gun

We’ve all heard someone blurt out this phrase when they’re surprised, or maybe annoyed.

It might have begun centuries ago when the British Navy allowed women on ships, even though there were supposedly rules against the practice. If a boy was born on board to uncertain paternity, he was listed in the ship’s log simply as “son of a gun” (i.e., military man).

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. His columns are posted online at Email:


Almost every day, I hear people use old sayings and slang words in routine conversation, rather than simply saying what they mean.

But I’m glad we use language that way, because life wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if we all simply said what we meant every time we open our mouths. For no particular reason, here’s a look at the possible origins of a handful more of the thousands upon thousands of old sayings, idioms and slang that constantly show up in the English language.

•Doozy (or doozie).

I’m pretty sure there’s nobody I know who doesn’t understand that if something is a “doozy,” it’s a heck of an example of whatever it is.

While there doesn’t appear to be a definitive origin for the word, there are at least three main theories.

The oldest possibility is it’s an adaptation of “daisy,” which was used in 18th century England as a synonym for something or someone of high caliber.

For example, if someone was trying to sell a mare and was trying to convince someone else of what a fine animal it was, they might have said, “that horse is a real daisy! She’s well worth the price!”

Another possibility is that it came from the nickname for the Duesenberg, a luxury automobile introduced in the U.S. in the 1920s by Duesenberg Motors Co., a firm that was sometimes referred to as “Duesy” (just like many people in these parts don’t own Chevrolet pickups, but Chevys).

A third possibility is that it comes from the nickname given to Italian actress Eleanor Duse, who made headlines in the 1890s in the world of New York theater.

All three are cool possibilities. I like the automotive choice.


A cute way to say, “see you later,” or “goodbye,” right?

Yep, and it’s origin is British.

The “toodle” (or tootle) part is a variation of the word “toddle,” and both basically mean to “walk in a leisurely manner.” So I guess if you say, “toodle-oo,” you’re going to walk AWAY in a leisurely manner.

Incidentally, if you’re in need of walking away leisurely, but quickly, you can just say, “toodles.” At least, I’ve heard that many times and I figure it’s a time saver – albeit small.

Incidentally, you really don’t have to walk anywhere to use either variation – time has allowed them to simply become ways to say “goodbye.” I’ve heard my own wife say “toodles” when hanging up the telephone.

•Nose to the grindstone.

Certainly, we all know that anyone whose nose is in this situation is hard at work, focused and determined.

But maybe the phrase was originally more about working smart than hard. That’s because it’s an old-time European expression designed to remind a miller that he must maintain a flow of grain between the mill stones, which were traditionally set one above the other. Without any grain between them, the stones would touch and create sparks that could cause an explosion that would kill the miller.

Basically, keeping your nose to the grindstone meant to pay close attention – and maybe live another day. So it didn’t have anything to do with sharpening tools on stones or that kind of thing – who knew?


My wife and I watched an odd movie the other night about members of a high-falootin Mexican family.

Accurately stated, they were “highfalutin” people. The word isn’t even slang. The Merriam-Webster definition is “seeming or trying to seem great or important; expressed in or marked by use of high-flown bombastic language.”

Wow, so now we have an old saying that’s not even an old saying, and it basically means exactly what we’re used to having it mean. And come to think of it, I know of a lot of high falootin folks, especially in major politics.


It’s no secret that if something is smack-dab in the middle of something else, it’s centered about as well or as much as possible.

But what in the Sam Hill do “smack” and “dab” have to do with that?

I’m not really sure, to be honest. But I can tell you that “dab” is a British word meaning clever or skilled, and the phrase “dab hand at it” might be used to refer to someone a with a high degree of knowledge or skill in a particular field.

Less obscure is the fact that “smack” is a verb meaning to strike sharply and with a loud noise. So I guess if something is smack-dab in the middle, it was skillfully and authoritatively placed there. That’ll work.


I often find myself saying this.

And when I do, I’m sure the listener doesn’t have to think twice to understand it means I’m expressing empathy with undesirable or unfortunate circumstances.

Well, its origin is a little less clear than its meaning, but it might have started in the 1700s, when foxhunters would call out “hoicks” or “yoicks” to encourage their dogs, Apparently, the practice became common in the 1800s as a means of expressing excitement.

If that’s the case, fear was added later. But as we’ve concluded before, many old sayings and expressions are recognized nowadays as meaning the opposite of their origins.

•Kill two birds with one stone.

It’s well known that if you chuck one rock and kill two birds, you’re operating with efficiency and getting stuff done.

But there doesn’t appear to be any neat and tidy origin to this phrase, other than it showed up in writing in the 1600s and has been around ever since.

The other day, I heard a man in our office say, “I thought I’d kill that bird, too.” The “too” in that statement surely references killing more than one “bird,” which of course doesn’t refer to an actual winged creature, but a task.

Interesting how the man didn’t just say, “While I’m at it, I’ll probably take care of that other chore, too.”

But like I said, life wouldn’t be as interesting if we always just said what we meant, now would it? That’s what the spice of life is all about (hey, there’s one for next time).

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. His columns are also posted online at Email:

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:

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:

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:

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:

Here’s another installment in a randomly appearing series exploring the origins of well-known old sayings, adages and idioms.

•Gung ho. Meaning to be enthusiastic about or sold out to an idea or cause, the term is an English pronunciation of the Chinese “gōng hé,” which is a shortened version of a longer phrase. The two Chinese characters gōng and hé are can be translated as “work” and “together.”

•The acid test. Recognizable as meaning something is real, legitimate or authentic, the saying came from the California gold rush in the mid-1800s when prospectors and gold dealers used acid to distinguish gold from base metal. If the metal dissolved in a mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, it was real.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

•Keep up with the Joneses. This phrase gained fame in 1913 when the New York Globe began publishing a comic strip by the same name.

•What in the Sam Hill…? Sam Hill was a 19th century mercantile store owner in Prescott, Ariz., who like offering a large and unusual inventory. People began using the term “what in the Sam Hill is that?” to describe something they found odd or unusual, like items in Hill’s store. Nowadays, instead of “is that,” the phrase could be finished with the words “is going on here,” “happened,” or a variety of other ways. Finally! Why did I wait for the fifth installment for this one?

•Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Horses’ gums recede with age, which in turn makes their teeth appear longer (see “long in the tooth”). A common way to inspect a horse’s value is to check its mouth and estimate its age. Years ago (when horses were more common due to their use for transportation and work-related duties), immediately inspecting a horse’s mouth after receiving it as a gift was considered rude, much like inquiring about the value of a present is today.

•A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Commonly associated with the immediate value of what people have versus the potential value of what they might get, the phrase can be traced to a Medieval proverb stemming from the sport of falconry, where the “bird in the hand” (the preying falcon) was worth more than “two in the bush” (the falcon’s prey).

•To boot. A common reference to getting something extra, the term includes a corruption of the outdated word “bot,” which meant profit or advantage.

•Know the ropes. Widely accepted as a reference to knowing how to do something, the phrase goes back to the days when “tall ships” sailed the open seas. Obviously, knowing the ropes in a literal manner was crucial on a sailing ship.

•Touch and go. Recognized as meaning that someone or something is in an uncertain, maybe even dangerous situation, the saying probably stems from ships sailing in shallow waters where they might touch the seabed and then go.

•Three sheets to the wind. Sailors had several ways to describe being drunk. This term referred to being completely snockered; sails not properly roped would flop wildly in the wind, like a severely drunken sailor might stumble around on deck.

•Willy-nilly. Typically used to refer to someone doing something without much consideration or planning, the term actually originated from the phrases “will ye” and “nill ye,” which centuries ago meant whether or not someone wanted or agreed with something.

•Freelance. Presently, you might here a writer, photographer or other worker referred to with this title. In the Middle Ages, “freelances” were soldiers who fought for anyone who would hire them. They were literally free to lance as they wished.

•Let the cat out of the bag. Long ago, people who sold piglets would often put them in bags. Sometimes, they might put a cat in the bag instead, and letting the cat out of the bag exposed the trick.

So there you go – more ammo to put in your old sayings bandolier (even if some of it isn’t entirely historically accurate).

May your days be like “shooting fish in a barrel,” may you never be considered “lily livered,” and may things always “go swimmingly” until your “swan song.” And remember: “Procrastination is the thief of time,” “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” “it takes two to tango” and “to guess is cheap, but to guess wrong is expensive.”

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