Sunday, 22 February 2015

flogging a dead horse

Engaging in fruitless effort or trying to revive an interest which has died out. To insist on talking about something that no one is interested in, or that has already been thoroughly discussed. Similar phrases are ‘beating a dead horse,’ or ‘beating a dead dog.’ 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the expression in its modern sense was by the English politician John Bright, referring to the Reform Act of 1867, which called for more democratic representation in Parliament. Trying to rouse Parliament from its apathy on the issue, he said in a speech, would be like trying to flog a dead horse to make it pull a load.


I heard this phrase used by my father, who grew up using horses the way we now use motorized vehicles. He was in his fifties before he bought a Model A Ford and built a small garage to house it. No one in our family ever forgot the day that he drove up to the garage and, instead of stepping on the brake, started yelling, “Whoa!” I guess we could have said that he was flogging a dead horse! Or, at least, a non-existent one. The garage door survived.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Another story published

I'm delighted that Oddville Press has their latest magazine online. It's late, but better late than never! My story is called "Early Retirement" and it's on page 7. You can download the magazine for free in PDF from Oddville Press.

cut a cheque (or a check)


To write a check or to have a computer print a check. 

There are several theories about where this phrase originated. Take your pick!

This first one involves some history. Checks first appeared in England around 1720, and in the US around 1781, with the creation of the Bank of North America. ‘Cutting a check’ refers to the cutting out of a printed check from a larger printed sheet. Perforation was not used in these early days of checks, nor in the printing of postage stamps. A small blade or knife was used to cut out the check. Often the swerved cut from the blade was used to later match up the record stub and cut-out check.

Another theory is represented by this quote from a Savings Institution manual in 1985:
“When you cut a check, really ‘cut’ it! Make sure the payee's name is protected by pinhole perforations so it can't be changed. Make sure the authorized signature is ‘macerated’ so it can't be traced or transferred.” Paymaster check writers that literally cut into the paper were a common fixture in offices in the 50s.

Other people believe that the phrase is simply echoing similar phrases, such as ‘cut a deal.’ To ‘cut a deal’ means reducing a contractual exchange to fixed terms, written or otherwise.” Then we have ‘cut an invoice,’ or ‘cut an order,’ the latter being military lingo. These sayings originated in the days before photocopying, when the process of print duplication as well as sound duplication was a lot more physically apparent than it is today. People used to ‘cut a record,’ which did involve a physical groove, and later they ‘cut a tape,’ which was a carryover from record days. And today ‘cut’ has been supplemented by ‘burn’ and we ‘burn a CD’ when we record digital data on it.

But I don’t think we’re going to ‘burn a cheque,’ are we? 

The fourth theory deals with the literal cutting of materials. In the graphic arts, when copy was accepted as ready, it was cut into a metal plate either mechanically or by chemical action. The product of this effort was known as a ‘cut’ and the process itself was called ‘to cut a plate.’ Then there is ‘cutting a stencil,’ which many of us will remember from school, when teacher’s tests and handouts were typed or ‘cut’ onto a waxed stencil and run off on mimeograph machines. Do you remember how blurry that purple ink looked?


I think I’d better stop before we get to ‘cutting a rug,’ right? Or, cutting and running when the bankers decide you have cut too many cheques?

Sunday, 15 February 2015

have an axe to grind

This means to have a dispute or issue with someone, or to act with an ulterior motive.

The term comes from sharpening axes on a grindstone. Axe heads were first made of stone, then later of metal. They are used for splitting wood, felling trees and various other things. Axes are sharpened using a round grindstone that is rotated on an axle, using a foot pump or a second person to wind a handle to spin the grinding stone.

The phrase was first seen in America. Charles Miner wrote a tale, printed in 1810, in which he was duped into sharpening an axe for a man by using a grindstone. When Miner finished the task, the man left without paying Miner or even saying "thank you."

The story is published again in 1812 and included the following text:

"When I see a merchant over-polite to his customers ... thinks I, that man has an axe to grind."


The sense of someone having an agenda is common to both versions of the meaning and it doesn't seem likely that the two meanings arose independently.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

getting off scot-free

Which means getting away without paying taxes, or escaping punishment.

The word scot in this sense has nothing to do with Scotland, Scotsmen, or Dred Scott. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines ‘scot’ as ‘a payment or charge.’ The word comes from 'skat,' a Scandinavian word for tax or payment. This word migrated to Britain and mutated into 'scot' as the name of a tax.

In medieval England, as early as the 10th century, the scot was a tax which all the inhabitants of a town or village had to pay in proportion to the size of their property or the extent of their land. Some people avoided the scot, however, often because their houses were built in unfavorable places such as hills with no water, or places prone to flooding. Such people were described as scot-free and the term has now come to describe anyone who avoids a punishment or financial penalty that they would normally have to serve or pay.

'Scot' as a term for tax has been used since then in various forms - Church scot, Rome scot, Soul scot and so on. Whatever the tax, the phrase 'getting off scot-free' simply refers to not paying one's taxes.

The first reference in print to 'scot free' is in the Writ of Edward the Confessor. We don't have a precise date for the writ but Edward died in 1066, which is a long time ago.


The use of the figurative version of the phrase, that is, one where no actual scot-tax was paid but in which someone escapes custody, began in the 16th century, in John Maplet's natural history Green Forest, 1567.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

baker's dozen

A baker's dozen, (also known as Lucifer’s dozen, long dozen, or long measure) is thirteen, one more than a standard dozen. 

Many societies throughout history have had extremely strict laws concerning baker’s wares, due to the fact that it is fairly easy for bakers to cheat patrons and sell them less than what they think they are getting. This posed a serious problem since bread was a primary food source for many people.  For example, in ancient Egypt, should a baker be found to cheat someone, he would have his ear nailed to the door of his bakery. In Babylon, if a baker was found to have sold a ‘light loaf’ to someone, he would have his hand chopped off.

One might think checking to see if a baker was cheating you on a loaf would be as simple as weighing the loaf, but this was not actually the case.  Bakers had many tricks up their sleeves for cheating customers while having the weight come out more or less correctly.  One such trick was to add a bit of ground sand to the loaf to get the weight just so, while being able to use less wheat.

England’s bakers were regulated by a trade guild called The Worshipful Company of Bakers, which dates back to at least the reign of Henry II (1154-89). The law that caused bakers to be so wary was the Assize of Bread and Ale. In 1266, Henry III revived an ancient statute that regulated the price of bread according to the price of wheat. Bakers or brewers who gave short measure could be fined, pilloried or flogged, as in 1477 when the Chronicle of London reported that a baker was forced to admit his guilt upon the pillory for selling bread that was underweight. The first time the phrase saw print, apparently, was 1599.

The Assize regulated weight, not number. Whenever the bakers sold bread in any quantity, they added something extra to make sure the total weight wasn't short. When selling in quantity to middlemen or wholesalers they would add an extra loaf or two. When selling single loaves to individuals they would offer a small extra piece of bread. The Worshipful Company still exists and reports that this carried on within living memory and that a small 'in-bread' was often given with each loaf.


The term ‘baker’ dates back to around the year 1000.  Another term that meant the same thing was ‘bakester.’  This latter word probably referred to female bakers; this is similar to how a ‘webster’ was a female weaver, with the ‘-ster’ ending implying a woman. ‘Bakester’ is where the surname “Baxter” comes from.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

not worth a plugged nickel

A plugged nickel is worthless, so to say that something is not worth a plugged nickel is to say that it’s less than worthless, perhaps even that it has a negative value.

The idiom is an Americanism which first appeared in print in the late 1800s, although we can assume ‘plugged nickel,’ along with the similar ‘plugged quarter’ and ‘plugged peso,’ were in common usage long before they made it into print. To ‘plug’ a coin means to remove the center, usually a precious metal such as gold or silver, and replace the missing part with a cheaper metal ‘plug.’ Coins so tampered with are no longer legal tender and are thus worthless if spotted. This sort of larcenous messing with currency has been popular since coins first appeared millennia ago. 

Coins used to actually be worth their denominations. A nickel actually had 1/20th of a dollar’s worth of nickel in it. Dimes and quarters generally had 1/10th and 1/4th of a dollar worth of silver in them. A $25.00 gold piece was just that and held $25.00 worth of gold. No one seems to know why the term stuck to the nickel rather than the penny but since a nickel is only worth five cents anyway a plugged one was particularly worthless.


And a modern penny may be pure in terms of the metal it contains, but it’s now not even worth a plugged nickel!