The English language; a diverse and ever-changing beast. As a teacher, I am often confronted with how perplexing our great language can be, and how some of the words that inhabit its planes of communication are far from the lands of sanity. As a mish-mash of various languages, English is very much a patchwork quilt of Latin, French, Germanic, Greek and Polynesian origins. And that is just the start. Trace the history far enough and you will find many more influences too.
Even in our contemporary world, English still insists on ‘loaning’ words when a better one doesn’t already exist in the language, such as Karaoke. New words find their way into our language too from popular culture and general life around us. Anyone who has ever seen The Thick of It will be familiar with Malcolm Tucker’s classic ‘omnishambles’. A word which is only as old as that show, invented to describe a “situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations” according to Oxforddictionaries.com.
This wonderful flexibility is arguably one of the reasons why English is such a popular language, and spoken so widely. But, don’t you ever wonder where some of the sayings come from?
Specifically, I like to look at the history of idioms. An idiom is a figure of speech used to mean something other than its literal meaning. In the English language it is estimated there are over 25,000 idioms in use!
That would be a seriously long-read if we tried to define them all! So, let’s start small. Here is the meaning for five famous idioms (and for one famous phrase that isn’t an idiom but has an interesting history).
Always a bridesmaid, never a Bride
Lets start with an easy one, the meaning of which is exactly what it says; someone always being present at other people’s weddings but never having their own. It is often used by old, cruel mothers to mock their unwed female offspring… generally to make single women feel that they are unwanted or cannot find love 😦
It was first used in the Victorian dance hall song Why Am I Always a Bridesmaid by Fred W. Leigh. The phrase gained popularity after being used in a comedic Listerine advert. It shows a picture of a woman named ‘Edna’ under the slogan ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’. She stares forlornly into the distance as she contemplates how her halitosis prevents her from finding love. The solution? Buy Listerine mouthwash and watch the suitors pile in!
Who remembers their days as a kid/student/adult/parent, scrambling with your friends or siblings for the honour of riding in the passenger seat, next to the driver? Of course, “I called shotgun” is the way of letting all others know you have earned this mighty privilege without the need for bloodshed.
This saying comes from the ol’ Wild West, a time and place where life was much more dangerous than today. If you were sitting next to the driver you would be expected to wield a shotgun so as to defend the stagecoach (the transport of the day) from bandits and looters. More pressure than merely map reading!
This is a phrase often used to describe someone who is mentally unhinged. It was also the name of a big hit for Pop-Punk trio Green Day in 1994.
This is supposedly a term from World War I, used to describe someone who has lost all their limbs. The first recorded use of the term in official use was by the US government in denial of this practice. In 1919 The US command on public information issued this statement:
Hold Your Horses!
This means ‘wait a moment’, and is often used to calm someone who is showing overt keenness or exuberance.
It is believed to come from around 800BC. A line in book 23 of Homer’s Iliad is commonly translated as “Antilochus – you drive like a maniac! Hold your horses!” That is, apart from the original translation in 1598 that has it as “contain thy horses”. I’m not sure why I prefer if I’m honest. Either way, this Antilochus fellow sounds like a bit of a bad ass. Those horses though…
Close, But No Cigar
This is another way of saying that you only just missed out. It was a near miss!
There was a time, many moons ago, when cigars were the preferred choice by fairground stalls as their prizes instead of the large, fluffy plush toys you will find yourself winning these days. One can only imagine if the cigars would also be over-sized and cheaply made… That said, winning was much more impossible than it is now, with games often rigged to make them even harder! The first time it was written down was in a script for the film version of Annie Oakley in 1935, appearing as “close Colonel, but no cigar” according to phrases.org
From then on it gained popularity and appeared in newspapers from 1949 onwards.
So, it comes from con artists, tricking you into playing a game you were destined to lose. Can you trust anyone?
This, of course, is not an idiom, but it is an extremely popular expression that also has a rather random history.
Used initially in American, then global English, OK is now a staple in many different languages all across the world. It can mean ‘I understand’, or it can mean something is not very good, as in “the karate film was ok”. It can mean I am fine, and can even be a friendly way of saying hello, as in ‘Hey guys, you ok?”
So, onto its origins. There are myriad explanations for where this expression comes from: it could come from the Greek olla kalla, from German alles korrekt or Ober-Kommando, from Finnish oikea, from the Haitian port “Aux Cayes”, from Latin omnes korrecta, from Chocktaw okeh, from a Puerto Rican rum named “Aux Quais”, from Scotland och aye, from Louisiana French au quai, from Wolof waw kay, from Mandingo O ke. There are countless other stories too, increasing the legend of OK; initials on biscuits, branding on cattle, ‘Old Kinderhook’ being the nickname of president Martin Van Buren, ‘0 killed’ being the report of the night’s death toll in WWI or American Civil War, ‘Orl Korrect’ military reporting indicating that troops were in good order, or even ship builders marking wood for the ‘Outer Keel’.
The truth appears to be much more simple than any of that, however. In 1963 a famous etymologist named Professor Allen Walker Read published a book called American Speech. In it, he draws the conclusion that OK effectively started out as a prank.
On March 23rd, 1839, the editor of The Boston Morning Post published a humorous article about a ridiculous organisation named the Anti-Bell Ringing Association (ABRS). They were campaigning to have the laws of dinner bell ringing changed, and OK was used in this article as a shortened version of ‘Oll-Korrect’, or ‘all correct’. At the time it was not uncommon for abbreviations to change the spelling of words, such as ‘KG’ meaning no go (know go) and ‘OW’ meaning all right (Oll Write).
These witty abbreviations are essentially the old world’s LOL and BRB.
So, that’s us for this post. Any phrases you think have an interesting story but you didn’t see up here today? Or perhaps you have a phrase you would like us to look into? As always, feel free to leave a comment. Let’s keep the conversation going!
Special thanks to David Castillo Dominici, imagerymajestic, num_skyman, olovedog, stockimages, Tina Phillips and Sira Anamwong @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.
© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015