Wednesday, 17 September 2014

hit the sack

This is a slang way of saying your body will hit the bed when you lie down.

During World War II, American soldiers started referring to their sleeping bags as ‘sacks.’ ‘Hit the sack’ replaced the earlier expression ‘hit the hay.’ Why hay? Early mattresses were just large sacks stuffed with something soft, like feathers or hay. Before people lay down to sleep, they pounded on the sack till the straw or hay was evenly spread. Hence the expression ‘hit the hay.’

The 'sack' as slang for bed has been around a long time.  Besides ‘hit the sack,’ we use  ‘sack time,’ and ‘sack out.’ ‘In the sack’ means ‘in bed,’ which has long been associated with sex. I don't think I need to elaborate on that!

Sunday, 14 September 2014


‘Highballing’ (verb) means to go at full or high speed, as in ‘a highballing express train.’

A highball (noun) can be several things:
– a drink
– a ridiculously high offer (lowball is a ridiculously low offer)
– a railroad signal for a train to proceed at full speed

In the early days of railroading, the trackside signal of raising or lowering a two-foot globe on a pole to instruct the engineer whether to stop or keep going.

The first known use of ‘highball’ was not until 1912, so it seems unlikely that the following explanation, which I’ve seen in e-mails, can be true: that during horse and stagecoach days in England, a ‘low ball’ indicated there were passengers to be picked up and a ‘high ball’ told the driver to drive on through. The railroad signal seems a more plausible origin.

The related slang expression ‘ball the jack,’ has a similar meaning. It has been used in two ways:
– to move or work very fast
– to gamble everything on one attempt or effort

Originally, it was the name of a popular dance in 1913, which goes like this:
"First you put your two knees close up tight
Then you sway them to the left, then you sway them to the right
Step around the floor kind of nice and light 
Then you twist around and twist around with all your might, 
Stretch your loving arms straight out into space, 
Then you do the Eagle Rock with style and grace. 
Swing your foot way 'round then bring it back. 
Now that's what I call Ballin' the Jack."

It's not clear whether the dance or railroad reference came first. It's also been used to describe operating a jackhammer!

The phrase is popular: now it’s the title of a 1998 novel, “Balling the Jack,” by Frank Baldwin, in which the hero gambles everything he has on a dart game. There are rumors of a movie, but so far it hasn’t appeared.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

cost an arm and a leg

Something costs a large, usually exorbitant, even ridiculous amount of money.

This is an American phrase, coined after World War II. The earliest citation to be found is from the Long Beach Independent in 1949: “Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say ‘Merry Christmas’ and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.”

Other explanations are offered. One circulated by e-mail suggested that portrait painters (before cameras were invented) used to charge more for larger paintings and that a head and shoulders painting was the cheapest option, rising in price as arms were included and then legs. Painters certainly did charge more for larger pictures, but there's no evidence to suggest they arrived at a price by counting limbs. In any case the phrase is much more recent than the painting origin would suggest.

There were many newspaper reports of servicemen who had lost an arm and a leg in WWII. In earlier wars, soldiers died from these wounds. Improved medical care meant they would survive, but as amputees. These two facts suggest that soldiers who paid a high price in the war lost an arm and/or a leg, and thus the phrase was born. 

Shortages in the Depression and rationing during World War II made some people willing to pay exorbitant prices for scarce goods, which is also a plausible explanation.

Here’s something more gruesome – punishment for crimes in ancient times sometimes meant losing a member, which was costly indeed. A more likely explanation is that the expression derived from two earlier phrases: 'I would give my right arm for...' and '[Even] if it takes a leg,’ which were both coined in the 19th century.

I think this story is more fun. Adam told god he was lonely, so god said, “I will create a perfect companion for you who will always look after you, do all the house work, cook all the food, carry your children, look after you when you are sick, love and cherish you always. When you have an argument your companion will always be the first to say sorry because you were right.”

“That sounds too good to be true,” said Adam, “how much will this cost me?”

And god said, “an arm and a leg.”

So Adam said, “what can I get for a rib?”

And you know the rest of that story!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

save one's bacon

This phrase means to save someone from difficulties, failure, or danger or to accomplish a desired end; to spare one from injury or loss. Example: Quick thinking saved our bacon.

When we say ‘bacon,’ we usually mean the cured meat taken from the back or sides of a pig. To the mediaeval mind, however, 'bacon' was meat from anywhere on the body of the animal - what we now call pork. This was the origin of the slang term 'bacon' meaning the human body. 'Saving your bacon' was simply saving your body from harm. The expression was used that way as early as the 17th century as, for example, in the Ireland's Momus Elenticus, 1654.

Another suggestion is that ‘bacon’ may mean the sides of home-killed and cured bacon that every peasant family would have hanging up in the house. This would have been valuable property and if somebody ‘saved your bacon’ from fire or theft, it could mean you had a narrow escape from starvation.

But I do like better the idea that saving your bacon is the equivalent of saving your body. Or some part of it.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014


I came across this word yesterday. It wasn’t listed in the Unabridged Random House Dictionary which usually serves as my final authority, so I went online.

The Urban Dictionary says it’s the noun form of the adjective bogus, and means a collection of unsubstantiated or untrue assertions.

The Online Slang Dictionary says it’s “the level to which something is bogus.” It also said that bogosity is measured in bogons, using a bogometer, which I think is delightful. Example of use: “The bogosity level of his story about where he was all weekend is pretty high.”

Another “b” word I’ve always liked is “bodacious.” Random House defines it as: blatant, remarkable, audacious, bold or brazen. It’s been in use since about 1835. 

But I suspect “bogosity” was only bottled sometime last week.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

get the short (shitty) end of the stick

If you get the short end of the stick, you’re getting the worst side of an unequal deal. The phrase may have come from ‘worse end of the staff,’ in use since the early 1500s. Or it may refer to fighting with sticks, where having a shorter stick is a disadvantage.

A closely related idiom is ‘get the wrong end of the stick,’ but this means you have misunderstood the facts in a case or misunderstood a story. There are several suggestions for the origin of this one: 
- a composing stick, meaning the hand-held device a typesetter used for composing text from individual letters. If a compositor set type in the stick incorrectly, he got the wrong end of the stick. Obviously!
- a walking stick: you don’t want to grab the muddy, messy bottom of the cane. 
- a stridulum: in ancient Rome, the common practice was to clean your backside with a stridulum, a sponge on a stick. You wouldn’t want to pick up the wrong end of that, whether you had used it yourself, or pick up one somebody else had used.

- a beating stick: a master beating his servant would hold the right end of the stick in his hand. The servant might grab the wrong, or business, end of the stick but the master would simply wrest it away from him and the result would be more stick. The modern British idiom to give somebody stick, meaning to threaten or criticize severely, contains the same idea of physical assault but may be an independent invention.

Even if we can't be sure where the phrases originated, let's be sure not to get the wrong, or short end of the stick.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

on tenterhooks

Which means you’re in a state of uncomfortable suspense. But what is a tenterhook and how do you end up on one, or get off one?

A tenter is a wooden frame used to hang woollen or linen cloth to prevent it from shrinking as it dries. The tenterhooks are the hooks on the tenter used to hold the cloth in place.

Tenters are rarely used now but a hundred years ago, in wool weaving areas like the North of England, they were a common sight on the land around woollen mills, called 'tenter-fields.' It is easy to see how the figurative expression 'on tenterhooks,' with its meaning of painful tension, was derived from the 'tenting' or stretching of fabric.

This first example of the phrase found in print is in the 1690 edition of a periodical that was published annually between 1688 and 1693, The General History of Europe.