[Now that TGOB has developed a modest following, suggestions for posts occasionally arrive in my e-mail from the hopeful and/or well-intentioned — a few of which I’ve already sent forth into the world, with surprising success. Another has just providentially shown up in my mailbox; I say “providentially” because I’ve been running around all day and have nothing new to post.
The sender wishes to remain anonymous, but attributes what she sent to one “Barry McClellan: In God We Trust.” As the only “Barry McClellan” I was able to discover online is the head of a major health organization, I doubt very much he is the source of the etymological tidbits that follow. Moreover, I have no idea if any of them are true. But they certainly sound plausible and, as noted below, I’ve even heard one of them before. So as I have nothing else to offer tonight, let’s all thank the non-health-organization “Barry McClellan,” whoever he is, and be grateful for the reading experience he has put together to cover for me while I was out having my hair done.]
WHY WE SAY CERTAIN THINGS WHEN WE SAY THEM
A SHOT OF WHISKEY
In the Old West, a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents. So did a glass of whiskey. If a cowhand was low on cash he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a “shot” of whiskey.
THE WHOLE NINE YARDS
American fighter planes in World War II had machine guns that were fed by a belt of cartridges. The average plane held belts that were 27 feet (9 yards) long. If the pilot used up all his ammo he was said to have gone “the whole nine yards.”
BUYING THE FARM
This is synonymous with dying. During World War I, soldiers were given life insurance policies worth $5,000. This was about the price of an average farm. So if you died you “bought the farm” for your survivors.
This came about from the iron-clad ships of the Civil War. It meant something so strong it could not be broken.
PASSING THE BUCK/THE BUCK STOPS HERE
Most men in the early west carried a jackknife made by the Buck Knife Company. When playing poker, it was common to place one of these Buck Knives in front of the dealer so that everyone knew who he was. When it was time for a new dealer, the deck of cards and the knife were given to the new dealer. If this person didn’t want to deal he would “pass the buck” (the responsibility for dealing) to the next player. If that player accepted, then “the buck stopped there.”
The Mississippi River was the main way of traveling from north to south. Riverboats carried passengers and freight but they were expensive, so many people used rafts, which were a very cheap method of water transportation. However, every other boat had the right of way on the river over a raft. Because the steering oar on a raft was called a “riff,” “riff-raff” therefore came to mean low class.
The Old English word for “spider” was “cob.”
Traveling by steamboat was considered the height of comfort. Passenger cabins on the boats were not numbered. Instead they were named after states. To this day cabins on ships are called “staterooms.”
Early beds were made with a wooden frame. Ropes were tied across the frame in a crisscross pattern. A straw mattress was then put on top of the ropes. Over time the ropes stretched, causing the bed to sag. The owner would then tighten the ropes to get a better night’s sleep. To say “sleep tight,” meant to sleep comfortably on a bed that didn’t sag. [When I first heard this one, from the tour guide at the Alden House in Duxbury, Massachusetts, there was an additional reference to the bugs in the straw. It was: “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”]
OVER A BARREL
In the days before CPR, a drowning victim would be placed face down over a barrel and the barrel rolled back and forth in a effort to empty the lungs of water. It was rarely effective. If you ever find yourself “over a barrel,” you are in deep trouble.
Heavy freight was moved along the Mississippi in large barges pushed by steamboats. These were hard to control and would sometimes swing into piers or other boats. People would say they “barged in.”
Steamboats carried both people and animals. Since pigs smelled bad they would be washed before being put on board. The mud and other filth washed off the pigs was considered useless “hog wash.”
The word “curfew” comes from the French phrase “couvre-feu,” which means “cover the fire.” It was used to describe the time to blow out all lamps, candles and fires in fireplaces so that fires didn’t get out of control during the night. Its Middle English equivalent was “curfeu,” which eventually became the modern “curfew.” By extension, agreed-upon or government-mandated times for being indoors and off the street after dark are now also called “curfews.”
BARRELS OF OIL
When the first oil wells were drilled, the oil was stored in water barrels. That’s why, to this day, we speak of barrels of oil, even though they’re stored in tanks and measured in gallons.
HOT OFF THE PRESS
As paper goes through the rotary printing press, friction causes it to heat up — so that if you grab the paper right off the press, it is hot. “Hot off the press” therefore means to get immediate information.
[Thanks again, Barry.]