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.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the hundreds upon hundreds of rather mysterious old sayings that are a part of every day English language.

When analyzed literally, many don’t make much (if any) sense. But most never receive such scrutiny and are simply carried on through the generations.

In many cases, time has caused old sayings to lose their original form, and in others, to take on entirely different meaning. But whether they’ve withstood the pressure of change, or have been altered over time, finding out where old sayings come from always sheds very interesting light on them.

I chose a handful of familiar favorites and did a little research. Here’s what I found.

•God (or Lord) willing and the creek don’t rise

During the late 1700s, politician and Indian diplomat Benjamin Hawkins was working in the southeastern U.S. and was requested by the president to come to Washington, D.C.

Hawkins’ responded by writing that he would do so, “God willing and the Creeks don’t rise.” He was referring to the Creek Indians.

Over time the saying has morphed into the one we are now familiar with, in which the word “creek” has been substituted for “Creeks” and is associated with a swollen stream of water.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

•Tough row to hoe

Most often mistakenly stated a “tough road to hoe,” the phrase means to have a daunting task to perform, and refers to hoeing rows on a farm.

A tough row to hoe would in a literal sense be one full of rocks and roots, which in a figurative sense would be a tough problem to face.

The origin of the expression dates back to 1834, from a passage in the book “Tour to the North and Down East,” by frontiersman Davy Crockett, who wrote, “I know it was a hard row to hoe.”

Nowadays, you might hear a TV sportscaster say a team has a “tough road ahead.”

•Balls to the wall

The familiar old saying that means to push to the limit, or go all out, is not a reference to male anatomy, but an expression from the world of aviation. On an airplane, the handles controlling the throttle and fuel mixture are often topped with ball-shaped grips, which are not surprisingly referred to by pilots as “balls.”

Pushing the balls forward – toward the “wall” of the cockpit – is to apply full throttle and reach the highest possible speed.


Most present-day sports fans are familiar with this phrase and its use to describe a tournament in which each entrant (whether team or individual) plays all other entrants.

But its origin is vastly removed from athletics, and has nothing to do with a red-breasted bird.

The word “robin” in the saying is a corruption of the French word “ruban,” which means “ribbon.”

In 17th and 18th century France, the average peasant had plenty to complain about, and they often did so by petitioning the king. But that wasn’t a particularly wise move for a while, because his usual reaction was to seize the first two or three people who signed the petition and have them beheaded.

Wishing to keep their heads about them, but determined to petition for justice, peasants began signing their names on petitions in a circle, like a ribbon. That eliminated any order to the signatures, and if there were hundreds on a given petition, it was impractical for the king to punish all signers.

•Pleased as Punch

An old saying that’s generally recognized as meaning very pleased, it comes from the traditional, popular puppet show with roots in 16th century Italy known as “Punch and Judy,” featuring Mr. Punch and his wife Judy. Mr. Punch, who wears a brightly colored jester’s outfit, is typically portrayed as a character possessing gleeful self-satisfaction, hence the modern phrase.

•Big wig

In the 18th century when many men wore wigs, the most important men wore the biggest wigs. Important people are still called “big wigs” today.

•Bone up on

Commonly known to mean studying or learning about something, the phrase was originally slang used by American students in the 1800s.

A publishing firm owned by Henry Bohn produced Bohn’s Classical Library, a series of study aids that translated Greek and Latin classics to English and were widely used by students cramming for exams. The expression to “Bohn up” eventually became to “bone up.”

•Flash in the pan

Musical artists who become “one hit wonders,” or athletes who have a great moment but not a great career, sometimes end up wearing this label.

It originates from firearms jargon. For hundreds of years, muzzle-loaded rifles called muskets were designed to shoot with help from a priming pan filled with gunpowder. When flint hit steel, the powder in the pan would ignite, which then ignited the main charge of gunpowder and fired the musket ball. When the powder in the pan failed to light the main charge, all that took place was a “flash in the pan.”

•Swan song

Signifying a final performance, this saying comes from an ancient belief – which has no foundation in fact – that the only time a swan sings in its entire life is just before it dies.

The phrase was first recorded in the 6th century B.C. (Aesop), and is also found in Latin literature and in English beginning in the 14th century.

So there you have it.

A bit of somewhat interesting trivia to add to your relatively useless information file.

Realistically, it doesn’t matter where old sayings come from, and it would take a month of Sundays to even scratch the surface of finding out. All that matters is that a person understands what is being said when someone else pulls the old saying card.

And they usually do, because most people are “on the ball” when it comes to old sayings (there are at least three possibilities as to where that one came from; look it up if you feel led).

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

To each his own.

It takes all kinds to make a world.

There’s no accounting for taste.

These are all familiar old sayings born of the inescapable fact that there are billions of people on Earth with billions of different styles. No two have the same desires, likes, dislikes, or opinions, and each has his or her unique point of view.

Those differences often result in people having completely opposing reactions the very same thing. While something might have an extremely positive effect on one person, it might negatively affect the next.

Like a food item, car model, movie or book.

Or a newspaper column.

Being a writer by trade for many years, I have had the opportunity to see peoples’ differing viewpoints in action in a big way. I can recall multiple instances during my time in Georgia when a single installment of my weekly musings sparked a vast range of feedback from readers.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

And, of course, it’s no different in the Jillikins. I’ve had people tell me everything from they “really connect” to my ramblings to they “have no idea” what it’s all about. I’ve been told there’s an old-timer or two who look forward to reading my stuff each week, but I’m also aware that some folks think what I do is little more than a waste of good newspaper space.

Just last week, I received two almost polar-opposite sets of feedback about the same specific piece, one person sharing constructive criticism about how it could have been

better and the other gushing over the phone about how it made their day.

My unique viewpoint leads me to believe that both people were right. The piece just didn’t make much sense to the one person, while it tickled the other’s funny bone and pressed their sense of humor button.

Kind of like what happened seven or eight years ago after an emu got loose in downtown Cleveland, Ga., and evaded capture for most of a day. After I heard about how potential captors did as much running away from the big bird as they did chasing it, I wrote a piece about how Cleveland could become the new Pamplona, that town in Spain that annually stages the “running of the bulls” (note to self: add that to the anti-bucket list).

I clearly remember having a well-known community member tell me they “didn’t get it” and thought it was weird. But I also have a certificate from the Georgia Press Association that indicates the Running of the Emus piece took third in the “Best Humorous Column” category that year. Depending on who you talk to (the community member or the GPA judge), that column was either too strange or worthy of an award.

I’m glad it’s that way.

Lord help me the day I start pleasing everyone, and I guess it’ll be time to consider a new employment field if and when there’s nobody liking what I do.

Maybe it’s good that in a given week the subject of my column could be anything. If nothing else, that means the source of material should never run dry.

But then again, for everyone out there who likes the ever-changing, fluid and patternless nature of my weekly work, there’s someone else who wishes it would have more structure and actually offer something tangible.

For every reader who might enjoy it, there’s probably another who wishes it would go away.

In letters to the editor written by readers in Georgia, I was called – among other things – a “fake” and a “disgrace,” as well as a “blessing” and an “asset.”

I know that in each case, the person who submitted the letter was right. From their own point of view.

So, in all sincerity and taking to heart the varying viewpoints that exist among readers, I submit to you with regard to every column I have written or might write in the future: I apologize and you’re welcome.

There, that should cover everyone.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer, copy editor and advertising representative for the Houston Herald. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.