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Archive for February, 2010

Two Bits

Posted by Admin on February 26, 2010

Back in 1720, the term “two bits” became part of the language in the American colonies.  Referencing “pieces of eight” when one spoke of “two bits” they meant two pieces of the eight that made up a dollar.

In time, since two pieces of the eight was a quarter of the dollar, two bits was also referred to as a “quarter.”

As with all phrases, in time it came to mean cheap and tawdry as in a two-bit saloon (first recorded use of this meaning was in 1875) and two-bit politicians (first recorded use of this meaning was in 1945).

The first reference to “two bits” meaning something cheap and tawdry was first recorded 1929

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Pieces of Eight

Posted by Admin on February 25, 2010

During the 17th century and well into the 18th century, the Spanish dollar was the currency used in the American colonies. In order to make the change, it was decided that the dollar could be divided into eight equal pieces.

In Chapter 10 of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” we learn that Long John Silver’s parrot, Cap’n Flint is well acquainted with the phrase:  “And the parrot would say, with great rapidity, “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” till you wondered that it was not out of breath, or till John threw his handkerchief over the cage.”

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Know The Ropes

Posted by Admin on February 24, 2010

It’s not surprising to learn that the language of an island nation with a rich maritime history has a number of idioms related to sailing.  The earliest recorded use of this phrase dates back to England and the 10th century.

New sailors signing on with a ship had to acquaint themselves with knot tying as well as handling the ropes for each individual sail on the ship.  The better a sailor knew to tie and handle the ropes, the more valuable he was to the captain.
In this way, it paid to ‘know the ropes’ and a smart man was the one who learned the ropes as quickly and as efficiently as possible. 

Posted in Idioms from the 10th Century | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Fast and Loose

Posted by Admin on February 23, 2010

During the Medieval times, one of the popular games at fairs was called “Fast and Loose.”   The game was a simple enough game to play and was a real crowd pleaser.

The game host would fold a belt and ask a player to pin the belt fast to the table with a skewer.  Once the player (and the audience) was certain that he had pinned the belt fast to the table with a skewer, the game host would suggest a wager on whether the player had indeed skewered the belt.

As anyone could see, the belt was most certainly pinned to the table, however, the water wasn’t about having pinned the belt, but rather having skewered the belt. 

With all the bets in, the game host would loose the belt and show it to everyone in the audience, proving that the player had not been pierced by the skewer anywhere on the belt.

Posted in Idioms from the 11th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Let’s Boycott

Posted by Admin on February 22, 2010

In 1880, Englishman and former British soldier, Captain Charles C. Boycott was the real estate agent for the Earl of Erne in County Mayo, Ireland.  The earl was one of the absentee landowners who as a group held most of the land in Ireland.

Charles Parnell, an Irish politician, wanted land reform and advocated for a new policy.   Any landlord who would not charge lower rents or any tenant who took over the farm of an evicted tenant would be given the complete cold shoulder by Parnell’s supporters.

Boycott refused to charge lower rents and ejected non-paying tenants.  Parnell’s Irish Land League stepped in, and Boycott and his family found themselves without servants, farmhands, service in stores, or mail delivery.

Thus began the term “let’s boycott him” which means “let’s do to this person as we did to Captain Boycott in 1880.”

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Bringing Home The Bacon

Posted by Admin on February 19, 2010

The earliest citation for this phrase dates back to 1924 and can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary.  It is, however, much older than that and has its origins in the popular competition that used to be held at county fairs over the centuries.

Back in the day, the practice was to grease a pig and to then let the pig loose among a number of blind-folded contestants.  The contestant who successfully caught and held on to the greased pig was awarded the pig.

As bacon comes from pigs, winners of these contests were said to be “bringing home the bacon” to their family.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Red Letter Day

Posted by Admin on February 18, 2010

The term “red letter day” has come to mean an important or significant day. For years, printers have printed holidays in red on calendars.  But the history goes back to early prayer books.

Back in the day, the Saints’ days and Christian festivals –including Holy Days of Obligation — were printed in prayer books in red.  As was the custom, Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation were days devoted to the Church rather than to work.

In time, a red letter day became synonymous with a holiday from work which, of course, was a joyous occasion for most.  Eventually, a “red letter day” was thought of as a day when something special happened or was expected to happen.

Posted in Bible, Christian, Religious References | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Nick Of Time

Posted by Admin on February 17, 2010

In medieval times, a tally stick was used to record and document attendance at school and at church, quantities of items, payments made and payments due in commerce, the collection of taxes by local sheriffs, and more.  In fact, in England,  the split tally of the Exchequer was in continuous use from Medieval times through to 1826.

The tally stick was a stick of wood upon which a ‘nick’ was made to accurately record information.  In many cases, time was pressing and so it was important to have the information recorded before the individual with the tally stick was no longer available to ‘nick’ the stick in favour of the individual.  If you arrived just before the recording ended, you had done so ‘just in the nick of time.’

In time, the phrase came to mean that if you do something in the nick of time, you do it at the very last minute or second.

Posted in Idioms from the 11th Century | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Stealing His Thunder

Posted by Admin on February 16, 2010

John Dennis (1657 – 1734) was an English critic, dramatist and largely unsuccessful playwright whose sense of his own importance approached mania.

His play Appius and Virginia (1709) was not a success and management of Drury Lane Theatre, where it was playing at the time, withdrew it.  Specifically for the play, Dennis had invented a sound effect machine that very closely approximated the sound of thunder.

Later at a performance of Macbeth, Dennis heard thunder produced by his method and said of the purloined idea,  “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play!”

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hubba Hubba

Posted by Admin on February 15, 2010

The phrase came about during World War II and was coined by soldiers posted to the Pacific.  It was said that the native languages sounded like little more than a series of noises and as such, were referred to as hubbub.

When a beautiful woman from the region would pass by and a soldier wanted to strike up some sort of interaction with her, he was at a disadvantage since he didn’t know how to speak her language. 

Based on the word hubbub, soldiers began calling after beautiful women with the term “hubba hubba” to mean they were interested in getting the woman’s attention.

Overtime, the phrase has come to mean all women, not just women from the Pacific Rim.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »