Wednesday, 17 December 2014

let the cat out of the bag

To reveal a secret, unintentionally or otherwise.

Humorist and writer Will Rogers once said, “Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.” Once a secret is out, there’s no way of reversing the process.

The first documented use of the phrase comes from a book review in a 1760 issue of The London Magazine, the reviewer lamenting that, "We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag." There are two main theories explaining where the phrase actually originated but neither is very plausible.

The first claims the phrase refers to the cat o’ nine tails, used by the Royal Navy as an instrument of punishment aboard its ships. The whip’s nine knotted cords could badly scratch a sailor’s back, like a cat’s claws. The bag comes into play because the “cat,” being made of leather, was kept in a sack to protect it from drying out and losing its flexibility. The “cat” may have been stored in a bag, but taking it out doesn’t match the ‘disclose a secret’ meaning of the phrase. 

The other explanation says that the phrase came from livestock fraud. Supposedly, merchants would sell customers live piglets which were stored in bags for easy transport. The buyer wouldn’t discover they’d been cheated until they got home and a cat popped out of the bag. Piglets are bigger and heavier than cats and they make very different sounds. I can’t imagine enough people being fooled by this to give rise to an idiom. However, it may have arisen from the homily about not buying a pig in a poke, a saying that reliably dates to 1555 (with its antecedent "When a pig is offered, open the poke" dating to 1325). In other words, “let the buyer beware.”

So there’s no clear answer as to where the saying came from. Possibly "letting the cat out of the bag" was never more than an entertaining image of what happens when an interesting secret is revealed. The shock and surprise when such truth is revealed could be compared to the commotion raised by a frightened cat suddenly loosed from the bag that imprisoned it. Or perhaps it comes from the fact that when either secrets or cats are let out, they go  wherever they want. 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

son of a gun

The term is used to describe a person (especially a man) or thing that you are annoyed with and sometimes used as an interjection to express surprise. It’s often used as a euphemistic alternative to ‘son of a bitch.’

‘Son of a bitch’ has been part of the language for centuries, certainly long enough for people to come up with a euphemism for it. Shakespeare used something like it in King Lear, 1605 - "One that art nothing but the composition of a Knave, Begger, Coward, Pandar, and the Sonne and Heire of a Mungrill Bitch." 

Snopes.com lists ‘son of a gun’ as being in use since at least 1708. The phrase is thought to have originated in the British Navy and meant 'son of a military man' (that is, a gun). The British Navy had rules against having women on board, but they did turn a blind eye to women (wives or prostitutes) joining sailors on voyages. Any child born on board who had uncertain paternity would be listed in the ship's log as 'son of a gun.’

It is also claimed that the saying came from the supposed practice of women traveling on board ship giving birth on a sectioned-off portion of the gun deck. For instance, Admiral William Henry Smyth wrote in his 1867 book, The Sailor's Word-Book: "Son of a gun, an epithet conveying contempt in a slight degree, and originally applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands to sea; one admiral declared he literally was thus cradled under the breast of a gun-carriage."

From Harper’s Magazine, October 1883: "Thou lubberly, duck-legged son of a gun."

I think that would be quite difficult to say if you’d just had a glass of Navy grog!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

it's raining cats and dogs


This one's for Tanya.

“It’s raining cats and dogs” means a heavy rain is falling. Wet Coast weather, in other words.

Where did the phrase come from? Heavy rain would sometimes carry dead animals and other debris along the filthy streets of 17th and 18th century England. Even though cats and dogs never literally showered down from the sky, they became associated with severe rainstorms. 

The first appearance of the phrase was in Jonathan Swift’s A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation in 1738:

"I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs".

The weather on the Wet Coast for the past couple of days could well be described that way.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

cupboard love

A personal attachment that appears to be motivated by love but in fact stems from the hope of gain. Like dogs or cats, their apparent love for you is often based on what's in your cupboard.

This is an old phrase, dating from 1750-1760. The source seems fairly obvious since both humans and four-footed animals have been known to snuggle up to the cook in hopes of getting a meal. It reminds me of the first verse of the old Mother Goose rhyme:

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone;
But when she came there
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.


But I guess Mother Hubbard didn’t get anything to eat either. Sigh. Hand me a Kleenex.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

freeze the balls off a brass monkey

This colloquial expression means that the weather (sometimes called brass monkey weather) is extremely cold. 

It is often stated that the phrase originated from the use of a brass tray, called a ‘monkey,’ to hold cannonballs on warships in the 16th to 18th centuries. Supposedly, in very cold temperatures, the ‘monkey’ would contract, causing the balls to fall off. However, nearly all historians and etymologists consider this story to be an urban legend and it has been discredited by many authorities, including the U.S. Department of the Navy and the Oxford English Dictionary.

The story was rejected for two reasons. First, the purported method of storage of cannonballs (‘round shot’) is simply false. Shot was not stored on deck continuously on the off-chance that the ship might go into battle. Indeed, decks were kept as clear as possible. A little geometry shows that a pyramid of balls will topple over if the base is tilted by more than 30 degrees. This tilting, not to mention any sudden jolting, would have been commonplace on sailing ships, which would result in shot rolling around on deck and causing a hazard in high seas. Shot was stored on the gun or spar decks, in shot racks — longitudinal wooden planks with holes bored into them, known as shot garlands in the Royal Navy, into which round shot were inserted for ready use by the gun crew. These date back to at least 1769, when they were first referred to in print. 

Neither does the physics stand up to scrutiny. The range of temperatures required to result in a sufficient contraction of both balls and plate for falling apart is unlikely to ever have occurred in real life aboard a warship.

As to source, it has been suggested that it came from the small brass monkeys labeled “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,” which were common tourist souvenirs from China and Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries. But their introduction to English-speaking countries, came too late for the figures to have been the direct source of this phrase.

Another is from Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Catchphrases: Shortly before WWII, The Crazy Gang at the Palladium played a sketch wearing fur coats, hats, gloves etc. When the brass balls fell from a pawnbroker's sign, one of them exclaimed, "Blimey, I didn't know it was that cold!" But that can’t be the source either, since it’s even later than the importation of the small brass monkeys who are so wise.

Many early versions refer to heat rather than cold and the first known version of the phrase mentions neither balls nor cold. In John Esten Cooke's The Wearing of the Gray, 1865: "Cold enough to freeze the brass ears on a tin monkey." There are many other hot/cold variants of the phrase in print from the 19th century. Examples: talk the leg off... (1872), as cheeky as... (1873), burn the ears off...(1876). 

The following facts may well be part of the source of the phrase. The young boys who helped with the loading of cannons on naval ships were called powder monkeys. There were also ancient forms of cannon called brass monkeys, or drakes, or dogs. These were recorded in an inventory published in 1650 - The articles of the rendition of Edenburgh-Castle to the Lord Generall Cromwel: "Short Brasse Munkeys alias Dogs."

And, just to complicate things even more, these days a ‘brass monkey’ is one of any number of citrus-flavored alcoholic drinks. In 1986, the hip hop band, the Beastie Boys, released a single called "Brass Monkey" and the song's lyrics are focused on the drink of the same name.


Frankly, I think I’ll give up the chase and go have a hot rum. How much more Navy can I get?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

let sleeping dogs lie

It means that you shouldn't stir up old conflicts or provoke an argument when doing so will only cause trouble. A sleeping dog may instinctively lash out at someone who wakens him abruptly or without good reason and this natural response may be quite painful.

Geoffrey Chaucer used the phrase around 1374 in Troilus and Criseyde: 'It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake.’

The saying was a favorite of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, during the first half of the 1700s. He was quoted as saying this on more than one occasion regardless of whether it had to do with matters of the King’s Court, the American Revolution or any other situation where difficulties had arisen.


It’s recorded in French early in the 14th century, in the Proverbia Vulgalia et Latina, where the saying is: ‘Ne reveillez pas le chien qui dort.’ Translation: Do not wake the dog that sleeps. It is likely that it comes from the Latin saying, ‘Quieta non movere’ which means ‘Do not move settled things.’

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

bark one's shin

This means 'to rub or scrape the skin off one's shin.' One definition of bark is 'to remove bark from (something), to debark.' This of course came from the noun bark, or 'tree skin,' recorded since approximately 1300 CE and replacing Old English rinde or rind.

The injure-your-shin verb “to bark” comes from the “bark” one finds on trees (more specifically, as the American Heritage Dictionary says, “the tough outer covering of the woody stems and roots of trees, shrubs, and other woody plants”).  “Bark” in this “tree skin” sense was derived from the Old Norse “borkr,” and first appeared in English around 1300.

As anyone who has ever hugged a tree knows, the bark of the average  tree is abrasive, and even brushing against it with bare skin can be extremely painful.  But ‘barking’ in the ‘scrape’ sense didn’t come from people running into trees.  ‘Barking’ has also meant ‘removing the bark from a tree’ (an easy way to kill an unwanted tree) since the 16th century, and ‘bark’ has been used as slang for the human skin since the 18th century (“With the ‘bark’ all off his shins from a blow with a hockey stick,” 1876).  So it is the person’s ‘bark’ — the skin — that is being abraded and removed, much as the bark of a tree might be stripped.


Hard physical objects can be very unkind to the shins of people like me, for I’m often in a rush and clumsy along with it.