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:

I never tire of examining the origins of the zillions of old sayings, idioms and slang words we who speak English so often use in every day conversation.

Here’s a look at some more.

  • In the buff.

Most people are this way when they get out of the shower, right?

The origin of the phrase comes from something very different than nudity.

A buff-coat was a light leather tunic worn by English soldiers hundreds of years ago (through the 1500s). The original meaning of the saying was simply to be wearing such a coat, which Shakespeare even references in a 1590 play.

The current meaning is a reference to the color of Caucasians’ skin, which is somewhat like the light brownish-yellow of buff. This 180-degree transformation of the phrase was first recorded by a well-known writer (Thomas Dekker) in 1602.

I love it when old sayings come from even older sayings that pretty much meant something opposite.

  • Rhyme or reason.

We all know that when something is done without this, it’s absent of justification or sensibility.

Doug Davison

   Doug Davison

The saying has apparently meant pretty much the same thing since its inception, and started in French in the late 1400s before being picked up by English about a century later. I was hoping to nail down the “rhyme” part, but I guess there’s no rhyme or reason it’s in there.

  • Peachy.

Not only is the peach the state fruit of Georgia (even though substantially more of them grow in South Carolina), the word commonly stands for something going well, feeling good or that kind of thing.

Oddly enough, the meaning of the idiom stems from the practice of eating peaches. Apparently, there are versions that produce a natural high by interfering with lipotin receptors in the brain. This strain of peaches were often sold as a drug until being outlawed in the 1940s.

When “high” from eating them, people would often say that they were feeling “peachy.”

Since cocaine used to be an ingredient in Coca-Cola, maybe some folks back in the day considered a Coke and a peach a their “power lunch.”

  • Swimmingly.

Ranking high on my list of strange old sayings, it’s well known that if something is going this way it’s going well, with ease or successfully.

The common use of the adverb can be traced back to the early 1800s, when movement through water was considered generally smooth, especially compared to the “clomping” of walking on land.

A written piece from 1824 said, “The interview went off very swimmingly.” Not just swimmingly, but VERY swimmingly.

Now that’s smooth.

  • Fiddlesticks.

My mom would sometimes say this when something went a little haywire.

The term literally stems from “fiddle sticks,” the bows used to play violins, which were called “fydylstyks” in the 1300s. The word became associated with absurdity or nonsense when it was used that way by an English play writer in the 17th century.

  • Cooties.

I recall this word being used when I was young (all those years ago) to describe something – or more often somebody – who “had” something that was yucky (like a disease).

The word probably originated from Southeast Asian languages in which the word “kutu” refers to a parasitic biting insect. The term was also by British soldiers during World War I to refer to lice that proliferated in battlefield trenches.

It’s actually a bug – who knew? I guess that’s why there were big bugs in that game I had when I was a kid.

  • Scuttlebutt.

These days, someone might go to the local café to hear the latest “scuttlebutt” about what’s going on around town, because we know it’s a form of interesting news or gossip.

The term comes from a combination of a pair of nautical words: “scuttle” (to make a hole in a ship’s hull that causes it to sink) and “butt” (a cask used to hold drinking water in the days of big wooden ships).

The butt was also “scuttled” with a hole so water could be accessed, so sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt. Interesting how now the gossip IS the scuttlebutt.

  • Gone to pot.

Certainly, something that has gone this route is no longer as good as it used to be or generally just no good.

As with many modern idioms, there are more than one possible origins of this common phrase. Maybe the best one is that in the early days industrial mass-production, assembly-line workers would sometimes find a defective metal part not suitable for use. The sub-par part would subsequently be sent back to the smelting room to be melted down in the large smelting pot and re-cast a second time.

  • Shenanigans.

While we all know it means trickery or mischief, we’ll have to settle for wondering where the word came from, because time has apparently covered up any definitive answer.

Possibilities include the Spanish word “chanada” (a shortened form of charranada, meaning trick or deceit) the German word “schenigelei” (a peddler’s slang for work or craft) or the related German slang “schinäglen,” or perhaps the Irish word “sionnach,” meaning fox.

You know, it doesn’t really matter where any of these came from anyway. As Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Wow, Shakespeare twice in one column. Now that’s some refined classiness right there.

Or just good old shenanigans.

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