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:

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:


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:

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:

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: