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 A common reference to getting something extra, the term includes a corruption of the outdated word “bot,” which meant profit or advantage.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


As part of my continuing effort to explore that which is unusual, funny, strange, aggravating or downright weird, I submit to you three brief musings. One is about a familiar animal, another is about a scary fish and the other is about – well, you decide.

Stubbornness personified

I was heading home the other day and when I reached my driveway, I came across an armadillo.It looked like your average armadillo, but I don’t think this was your average armadillo.

Now I realize armadillos aren’t known for their expertise at avoiding becoming road kill. To the contrary, they seem to be very adept at getting run over and ending up as upside-down roadway shoulder ornaments.

But this one was extraordinarily immobile when I approached him; it was as if he was oblivious to the presence of the pickup truck I was in that was now four feet away from his four-pound body.

He would take a few steps, stop, root around a bit and repeat, staying right in the middle of the downhill portion of the driveway we were on and right in the way of a ton of Detroit steel.

Each time he’d move, my truck and I gained a few feet of driveway. This continued for at least seven minutes as I patiently allowed him to do his thing and not get squished. Then he finally turned to his left and walked slowly into the bushes.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I think this armadillo may have been completely deaf and had absolutely no peripheral vision. I mean, there has to be a logical reason why he didn’t get out of the way, right?

One of my co-workers didn’t think so.

“He was probably just being stubborn,” she said. “They can be that way.”

So if that’s true, while I was courteously waiting and not mortally injuring him, he was actually saying (in an annoyed, George Costanza-like tone), “I’ll let you know when I’m done over here.”

Wow, excuse me. Stubborn to the point of choosing to remain in harm’s way; go figure.

Armadillo means “little armored one” in Spanish. Maybe that’s gone to their heads.

Maybe they’ve mistaken their armor for the kind that’s found on an M-1 tank and they’ve developed an attitude over it. But I’ve got news “little ones,” if that’s what you think, you’re sadly mistaken and the next F-150 you don’t get out of the way of may be the last one you ever see.

That’s not a threat. I just think you should be more careful around objects that outweigh you by 1,996 pounds.

There’s no telling what’s out there

To get the date exactly right, I’d have to look back in the archives of the White County News in Cleveland, Ga., but I think it might have been in 2004 when a boy caught a strange fish in Lake Lanier.

North Georgia’s Lake Lanier is similar to many lakes in the Ozarks; it’s a huge body of water backed up behind a dam on a river (which happens to be the Chattahoochee River). You may have seen the lake on TV; rowing events were staged there during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.

The unexpected fish the boy pulled out of Lake Lanier while fishing off of dock with an average rod, reel and line was a pacu, a name used for several species of omnivorous South American fish related to the piranha.

Pacus have sharp teeth and can reach weights of over 50 pounds. The one the boy caught was about a five-pounder, which was probably a “pet” before it began requiring too much sirloin and broccoli and was dumped into the lake by its owner.

Basically, the boy was dropping a line to catch sunfish or whatever and caught a big piranha. In Georgia. In a popular swimming lake surrounded by homes.


The story inspired me at the time to write a column titled “A Call to Fishing Arms.” I wondered what in the Sam Hill else was in that lake and I thought maybe a Discovery Channel-like effort to find out was in order.

Anyway, all that came to mind the other day when I was shown a photo of a gigantic alligator gar that was caught last week near Vicksburg, Miss., by a man using a rod-and-reel who was trying to catch buffalo fish in a relatively small body of water called Chotard Lake.

If you have access to the Internet, Google “giant gar Mississippi” or something like that and you’ll be amazed at some of the photos.

The thing was literally a monster. It was 8-feet-5-inches long and weighed 327 pounds. It was estimated to have been lurking in the small lake for 50 to 70 years.

Lurking indeed.

It’s not like it needed to move quickly; when you go 8-foot, 320, and have a 20-inch tooth-lined snout, you probably don’t need to. You just lurk up, open wide and CHOMP.

And I can’t believe the gar’s conqueror’s description of how “it took a lot of effort to get him into the boat.”

Ya think?

Sheesh, that thing’s not getting in my boat; if I see it coming up at the end of my line, it’s cut and run time, baby.

The monster fish’s existence spurred a conversation in our office about how there are probably other, way stranger creatures lurking about in oceans, lakes, rivers, sloughs and canals on this planet that would blow peoples’ minds to find out about.

I believe that.

If there’s a 327-pounder in Lake Chotard, what kind of alligator gar are hanging out in much bigger lakes and rivers? If a Georgia pacu reached five pounds before biting on a worm and ending up high and dry, are there others in southern waters that are nearing the high point of their possible weight?

And if a supposedly extinct coelacanth that had been “walking” around on the bottom of the Indian Ocean near Madagascar can be pulled up in a fishing net, what else might be living in the waters that cover 70 percent of this planet?

And do we really know for sure that there isn’t a “Nessie” in some 1600-foot deep lake in Siberia?

It’s enough to make you stay on the shore. Where are Brody, Hooper and Quint when you need them?

Who’s ready for snotty rocks?

I have always found it to be amazing how much real life can sometimes rather suddenly resemble a science fiction movie.

There’s an article in the Messenger of last week’s Houston Herald that documents the latest aquatic “invasive species” we need to be worried about.

Called Didymo and nicknamed “rock snot,” the stuff is apparently a species of algae that’s native to many parts of the world, including North America. It likes warm, shallow water in lakes, rivers or streams, and when it grows too much, it can form a thick mat on the bottom that can and will pretty much choke out other life forms that attempt to share space.

Rock snot has apparently been found in the White River in northern Arkansas and the Missouri Department of Conservation is concerned enough about potential spreading that public open-house forums are scheduled for March and April to help educate anglers and boaters about its dangers.

Great. Rock snot.

It’s not enough that the world might be on the verge of some sort of economic catastrophe or an ideological clash of unprecedented proportion. Now we also have to be concerned with being overtaken by Martian river bottom slime.

Wikipedia describes didymo as a diatom, or single-celled algae, and that “the life history of diatoms includes both vegetative and sexual reproduction, though the sexual stage has not yet been documented in this species.”

If I understand that correctly, rock snot could be a plant AND an animal – but we’re not real sure on the animal thing. Yikes. Sounds to me like we are not alone.

I don’t care what it is, I cannot believe I haven’t heard about this stuff before and I do not want to see it show up in the Jack’s Fork River or any other stream in Missouri. Or in anyone’s lagoon, for that matter.

Oh well, maybe Planet X will arrive soon, a complete polar shift will take place or sun spot activity will immediately turn all of the inner planets into char-broiled rocks.

Then we won’t have to worry any more.

Doug Davison is a writer, copy editor and advertising representative for the Houston Herald. E-mail: