Origin of familiar phrases sparks interest By Bob Karolevitz It seems to me that we toss familiar phrases around without the slightest knowledge of their origin.
I've "split hairs," "had my dander up," "been in a pretty pickle" and "played hob" � but I didn't "give a hoot" where the expressions came from.
I still would have "let sleeping dogs lie" if Phyllis hadn't given me a copy of Heavens to Betsy, a compendium of curious sayings by Charles Earle Funk.
Funk, the former editor-in-chief of the Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary Series (who also wrote A Hog on Ice), has given his studied version of the genesis of more than 400 phrases which are part of our everyday language.
For instance, there's "mad as a hatter." As far as I was concerned, the Mad Hatter was just a character in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. But Funk delved further than that.
It seems that makers of felt hats in the old days used mercury in the process, and hatters who worked a long time with the quicksilver developed violent and uncontrollable twitching of the muscles. Funk then explained: "Their friends, not understanding the cause of their strange gyrations, concluded that they were mad."
Then there's "the hair of the dog that bit you." The author says that there have been Englishmen who believed that the best cure for a nip from Fido was to apply to the wound burned hair from the offending canine. That is, if you could catch him.
The "hair" became a small drink of whiskey as a morning pick-me-up after a night of conviviality. Funk even found a 1546 quote in John Heywood's Prouerbes in the English Tongue which went: "I pray they leat me and my fellow haue/A heare of the dog that bote us last night."
"Striking while the iron is hot" ��or to seize a favorable opportunity � has to do with a blacksmith pounding red hot metal on his anvil. Shakespeare used "dead as a doornail" aparently because there isn't much life in a doornail.
Ham actors were low-grade thespians who in the 19th century used ham fat instead of cold cream to remove their makeup. Funk relates "on the fritz" � or anything gone wrong � to Fritz of the Katzenjammer twins. A "stool-pigeon," he says was a decoy used by early-day American hunters.
"Riding the gravy train" comes from railroad slang meaning an easy run with good pay for the train crew. "To hit the nail on the head" means to say or do the right thing, and has no relationship to hitting the nail on the thumb which causes individuals to say things like #!@&*!#@.
"To get it in the neck" has to do with chopping heads off of chickens, thus a bad thing. "Flogging a dead horse," which has both French and English derivations, is just what it says. You can't revive lost interest.
"Dead as a dodo" refers to the large, clumsy, flightless but highly edible birds killed to extinction on the island of Mauritius by settlers and seamen before the end of the 17th century. It now means anything obsolete or completely washed up. Being "poor as a church mouse" were rodents who could find nothing to eat in apse, nave or sanctuary. Today it describes those who are way below the poverty level.
In Heavens to Betsy (which Funk admits he doesn't know who Betsy was), he leaves "no stone unturned" and goes on and on "to the bitter end" ��which I'm going to do now "like a bat out of hell."