Wednesday, 1 April 2015

rain check

This is the promise to complete an unfulfilled order or task at a later or more convenient date.

People don’t like to do anything in the rain. Therefore they pass along a metaphorical voucher—a rain check—to affirm their intent to complete the task. Of course, tangible ‘rain checks’ are also often handed out, say, at an outdoor event postponed by bad weather, or at a store when an item has sold out.

A promise that an unaccepted offer will be renewed in the future, as in ‘I can't come to dinner Tuesday but hope you'll give me a rain check.’ This term comes from baseball, where in the 1880s it became the practice to offer paying spectators a rain check entitling them to future admission for a game that was postponed or ended early owing to bad weather. By the early 1900s the term was transferred to tickets for other kinds of entertainment, and later to a coupon entitling a customer to buy, at a later date and at the same price, a sale item temporarily out of stock.

Sometimes I have to give my writing muse a rain check and promise I’ll get back to the keyboard later.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

bone of contention

This is an issue which remains in dispute, with the disagreeing parties unable or unwilling to resolve it.

A bone of contention can occur whenever there is a difference of opinion on any subject that escalates to the point of creating anger and negative feelings between two parties. Different thoughts on what type of fence to put around property may become an issue between neighbors. Political and religious stances can be the basis for disagreement that becomes heated and divisive. Parents may disagree on some aspect of child rearing, creating ill feelings within the family.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase dates back to the 1500s and refers, appropriately, to two dogs fighting over an especially choice bone.

‘Bone to pick’ dates back to the 16th century and simply refers to a dog chewing endlessly on a large bone. A ‘bone to pick’ is thus a subject or issue that is expected to require considerable discussion or argument.

It has a slightly different meaning in Ireland. 'I have a bone to pick with you' means 'I believe you have done me wrong and I want to know why.'

Main issue of a disagreement; something to quarrel about. For example, Grandfather's will was a bone of contention for the whole family.

In my house, the bone of contention is usually between two of my desires: to eat lots of potatoes and to lose weight. The potatoes usually win!

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

back to the drawing board

You start a project over again after an initial attempt has failed. The phrase ‘drawing board’ refers to the work space of an architect or draftsman, upon which many designs, blueprints and similar plans are created.

This phrase wasn’t used extensively until after World War II. It gained common currency very quickly and began appearing in US newspapers by 1947. It was well-enough known by 1966 for it to be used as a title for an episode in the 'Get Smart' TV series, and has also been used as the title of several books.

The phrase originated as the caption to a cartoon by Peter Arno for the New Yorker magazine, in 1941. The cartoon shows various military men and ground crew racing toward a crashed plane, and a designer, with a roll of plans under his arm, walking away saying, "Well, back to the old drawing board."

Today, this saying is used as a humorous way to say someone is starting over again, or returning to the beginning of something. You might also say, ‘back to square one.’ This variant is thought to come from a board game or street game where an unlucky throw of dice sends the player back to the beginning of the course.

I’m very familiar with the concept. When I’m reading the first draft of a novel and find that the middle sags and the ending doesn’t answer some of the questions raised, it’s ‘back to the old keyboard.’ Or when I take muffins out of the oven and they sag in the middle and are burnt on the bottom, it’s 'back to the old mixing bowl.'

Sunday, 22 March 2015

skeleton in the closet

The ‘skeleton’ is a secret, possibly shameful, embarrassing, or ruinous, which an individual often takes pains to conceal.

'A skeleton in the closet' undoubtedly began as an allusion to an apparently respectable person or family having a guilty secret. The image of a closet or a cupboard in the home gives a sense of the ever-present risk of discovery. What isn't clear, however, is whether the origin of the phrase lies in fiction or with real  skeletons.

The phrase was first used in the early 1800s and it has been suggested that the phrase derives from the era of the notorious body snatchers, prior to 1832, when the UK's Anatomy Act allowed more extensive use of corpses for medical research. The theory is that doctors would conceal in cupboards the illegally held skeletons they used for teaching. It’s an interesting theory, but there's no evidence that it’s true. Concealed skeletons are occasionally found in walled-up in houses but they are usually those of unwanted infants.

As a sidelight, the word 'closet' is now used primarily in England to mean 'water closet' or lavatory, so the English now usually say 'a skeleton in the cupboard.' 

The dramatic device of a hidden body was used widely in the Gothic novels of the Victorian period. Edgar Allen Poe was the master of such tales, and used it in The Black Cat, 1845. Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray referred to 'a skeleton in every house' in a piece in 1845 and explicitly to 'skeletons in closets' in The Newcomes; memoirs of a most respectable family, 1854–55. Whether Thackeray was alluding to actual skeletons or whether he was responding to the imagination of authors like Poe, we do not know.

The American expressions 'come out of the closet' and simply 'come out' began to be used in the 1960s and are direct follow-ons from 'a skeleton in the closet.' Sixty some years later, attitudes have changed in North America and most of us don’t regard homosexuality as something that is shameful or needs to be hidden. Unfortunately, this is not true of every country in the world and not true of some people in what we consider our more enlightened part of the world.

In my house, though, a skeleton in the closet is likely something left over from Hallowe’en!

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

apple of my eye

This phrase refers to an object of great affection, usually more important than all others.

It originally meant the central aperture of the eye. In Old English, the pupil of the eye (the round, dark center) was called the 'apple' because it was thought that the pupil was a solid, round object much like an apple. When you look at someone, a reflection of them appears in your pupil. So if someone is the 'apple of your eye,' he or she is someone that you look at a lot and enjoy seeing.

'The apple of my eye' is very old and first appears in a work attributed to King Aelfred (the Great) of Wessex, AD 885, titled Gregory's Pastoral Care. Much later, Shakespeare used the phrase in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1600. The phrase was known from those early sources but became more widely used in the general population when Sir Walter Scott included it in the popular novel Old Mortality, 1816:
"Poor Richard was to me as an eldest son, the apple of my eye."

Because sight has always been considered the most important of our senses, and the center of the eye is thus arguably the most valuable, ‘the apple of one’s eye’ quickly came to be used as a metaphor for ‘that thing which is most precious.’

Of course, if you like food as much as I do, it may well be that an apple is the apple of your eye.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

foaming at the mouth

Expressing furious rage.

It seems likely that this phrase originates from diseases such as the rabies virus, which both animals and humans can catch. Most cases of human rabies are a result of being bitten by an infected dogs. One symptom of rabies is that it makes swallowing difficult, and for some, the virus can even prevent the person or animal from swallowing at all. Consequently, saliva builds up and there is a ‘foaming’ at the mouth.

There are examples of this phrase in Old and Middle English that date back to at least the first millennium. The earliest version in a form that we can now readily understand is in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, 1601:
"Caesar fell down in the market-place, and foamed at mouth, and was speechless."

The expression is a form of hyperbole, which is a literary device that exaggerates or overstates an idea or image for effect. Even the most irate people don’t literally foam at the mouth the way a rabid animal does. Nonetheless, when a person is so furious that all control has been lost, the target of the anger might feel as afraid as they would if that person were indeed rabid.

The phrase makes me think of a mother’s threat to wash out her child’s mouth with soap because he/she used a cuss word. That might result in foaming at the mouth. Or was that action only ever just an idle threat?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

going to the dogs

Descending into dissipation and ruin. Similar phrases are ‘go to pot’ and ‘go to rack and ruin.’

According to the Macmillan English Dictionary, if a place or an organization is going to the dogs, it is not as good as it was in the past. People often say things like, “This country’s going to the dogs. Things aren’t like they were 30 years ago,” or, “This train service is going to the dogs. The trains are always late.”

As far back as the 1500s, bad or stale food that was not thought suitable for human consumption was thrown to the dogs. The expression caught on and expanded to include any person or thing that came to a bad end, was ruined, or looked terrible.

One source states that this expression originated in ancient China where dogs, by tradition, were not permitted within the walls of cities. Consequently, stray dogs roamed the areas outside the city walls and lived off rubbish thrown out of the city by its inhabitants. Criminals and social outcast were often expelled from cities and were sent to live among the rubbish – and the dogs. Such people were said to have ‘gone to the dogs,’ not only literally but metaphorically in the sense that their lives had taken a distinct turn for the worse.

If you speak of 'the dogs' in the UK, people may assume you’re talking about greyhound racing, a popular pastime since the early 20th century. The British Greyhound Racing Board claims that around 4 million people each year 'go to the dogs.'

I need to get back to the novel. My self-discipline has gone to the dogs.