Wednesday, 29 October 2014

toe the line

I was under the impression that this phrase was a synonym for ‘walk the line’ but it isn’t. It means to conform to an established rule or standard or political program.

The term has been attributed to sports, including toeing the starting line in track events and toeing a center line in boxing, where boxers were instructed to line up on either side of to start a match. However, the earlier boxing term was ‘toeing the scratch,’ referring to a scratch mark on the floor. Anyone man enough to enter into such a contest was, of course, ‘up to scratch.’

In addition, there is a military and naval connection. In the 19th century, sailors were expected to prepare themselves for group punishment by standing in formation on deck and ‘toeing the line’ between boards - also called ‘toeing the crack.’ This latter usage is the was first used in print in The Edinburgh Literary Journal, January - June 1831.

The term is still in literal use in the military, particularly the US Army. Some barracks have two solid lines, each approximately three inches wide and placed five feet apart, either taped or painted, running down the center of the entire length of the floor. The soldiers are ordered to ‘toe the line.’ At this command they cease their activities and line up with their toes on the line. Again, on some military parade-grounds there are white lines marked, along which soldiers form up, with their toes just touching the line.

Since the phrase is used in connection with politics, some sources erroneously state that its origins lie in the British House of Commons where members wearing swords were instructed to stand behind lines that were two sword-lengths apart from their political rivals in order to maintain decorum. However, there is no record of a time when Members of Parliament were allowed to bring swords into the Chamber. Historically, only the Sergeant at Arms carries a sword as a symbol of his role in Parliament. There are loops of pink ribbon in the Members' cloakroom for MPs to hang up their swords before entering the Chamber to this very day as a result of this rule. And, in fact, there were no lines on the floor of the Chamber in the days that gentlemen (or ladies) carried swords.

There is no definitive word on the original source of the phrase, nor when it might first have been employed, but it’s obviously been used a lot.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

walk the line

To walk the line is to maintain a balance between one thing and another, such as good and evil, sanity and insanity, decency and decadence. It can also mean to abide by the law or by moral standards; to walk a straight path of decency by following the rules; to ‘walk the straight and narrow.’

This term comes from convict exercise yards (circa 1700s to 1920s). Prisoners had to walk around in a wide circle on a line painted on the ground for as long as exercise time permitted. If any prisoner went too far astray from the line he was punished.

So, no, Johnny Cash did not invent the term for his popular song; it predates him by many, many years. The terms 'walk the line' and 'walking the line' can be found in Port Arthur (a Tasmanian convict prison) documents dating back to 1874.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

your eyes are bigger than your stomach

This saying means to take more food than you can possibly eat, resulting in waste. Since many cultures have an aversion to wasting food, some version of this slang term is present in many languages, as a reminder to people to take only as much as they need.

The idea is that because you’re hungry, you overestimate your stomach capacity, taking more food than can be eaten comfortably. It can also happen when you’re confronted with extremely rich food; it may seem possible to eat a large portion until you actually bite in and realize that the food is very filling. And, in a buffet, where there is so much food and it all looks so appetizing, it’s tempting to heap up your plate rather than go back for seconds.

The earliest recorded version of this phrase is from George Herbert's Jacula Prudentum (1651): ‘The eye is bigger than the belly.’ 

The Latin title ‘Jacula Prudentum’ translates approximately as ‘short and pointed comments made by judicious men.’ In other words, an aphorism.

There’s no waste of food at my house, though. Whatever I can’t eat goes back in the fridge for another time.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

knickers in a knot

People use this phrase when they are telling you not to become angry or upset about something they don’t think is important.

The original phrase, ‘Knickers in a twist,’ is a Britishism, derived from the British sense of knickers as in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “A short-legged, loose-fitting pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment. In extended use, the shorts worn by boxers, footballers, etc.” It first appeared in the U.K. in 1967. In Australia, they changed it to ‘knickers in a knot.’ Perhaps because they like alliteration? In North America, we sometimes hear the expression as ‘panties in a bunch.’

I’d like to know exactly how one could get one’s knickers in a twist. Perhaps by trying to put both legs through the same hole? But I’m not going to get my panties in a bunch over it.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

shithouse luck

This phrase is used to describe an unlikely occurrence of good fortune or luck. 

The only explanation I could find was that it derives from Celtic or Scottish folklore and occurs when one is out walking in the wilderness or a remote area and happens to come across an outhouse when in dire need of defecating.

It does NOT mean that when I want breakfast I will find eggs, bacon and potatoes in the fridge. That’s not luck; that’s good planning!

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Indian giver

This is an American expression used these days to describe a person who gives a gift (literal or figurative) and later wants it back, or something equivalent in return.

The phrase originated in a cultural misunderstanding that arose when Europeans first encountered Native Americans in the 1600s. Europeans thought they were receiving gifts from Native Americans, while the Native Americans believed they were engaged in bartering; this resulted in the Natives finding European behavior unfair and insulting.

As documented by Lewis and Clark, trading with Native Americans meant that any trade, once consummated, was considered a fair trade. If on one day, they traded beads for a dog from a tribe, then days later, the trade could be reversed and, upon surrendering the beads, the tribe expected the dog back. The original idea of ‘giving’ in this fashion connotes trade (‘I'll give you this, and you give me that’), not gifts or presents.

The phrase was first noted in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson, who characterized an Indian gift as ‘a present for which an equivalent return is expected.’ In the 1997 book The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States, the editor says that although the phrase is often used innocently by children, it may be interpreted as offensive, and The Copyeditor's Handbook (1999) describes it as objectionable. If I were a Native American, I would certainly find it offensive.

The term may actually have been coined to denigrate the native race. Historians would now agree that, where deceit was concerned, it was the settlers who were most guilty. It isn't uncommon for the conquering race to attempt to justify their invasion by dismissing the conquered as dishonest and stupid.

‘Indian’ was once used by the white man as an all-purpose adjective signifying ‘false,’ owing to the supposedly low morals of the red man. Thus we have ‘Indian summer,’ false summer late in the year; ‘Indian corn’ and ‘Indian tea,’ cheap substitutes for products the original colonists had known back in England.

The history of this phrase is easy to trace, but I hope it becomes obsolete.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

bite the bullet

We use this phrase when we’re about to endure something unpleasant.

The common explanation is that patients undergoing surgery would be given a stick of wood or a pad of leather to bite to divert their attention from the pain, to protect against biting their own tongues and, not least perhaps, to reduce the amount of screaming. In the circumstances, lead poisoning would probably not have been a concern. 

However, many artists painted scenes of early surgery and none shows patients biting into anything. There's little doubt, though, that they would have been fortified with strong drink.

The phrase dates back to the 18th century. The following entry is the definition of 'nightingale' in Francis Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1796: 
‘Nightingale. A soldier who, as the term is, sings out at the halberts. It is a point of honour in some regiments, among the grenadiers, never to cry out, or become nightingales, whilst under the discipline of the cat of nine tails; to avoid which, they chew a bullet.’

The use of 'bite the bullet' means to 'show courage; display a stiff upper lip', and is appropriately Victorian. Rudyard Kipling wrote a dialogue in the 1891 novel The Light That Failed, which uses the expression where no actual bullet was involved but which alludes to the idea that fortitude can be gained by biting a bullet.

And right now, I'm going to bite the bullet and go do the dishes.