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 A common reference to getting something extra, the term includes a corruption of the outdated word “bot,” which meant profit or advantage.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