Our language is full of words and phrases that we use all the time without giving any thought to their origin. Maybe you’ve wondered from time to time exactly how and why they came to have their own special meaning and significance. Well, don’t lose any more sleep because here are a few answers:
• If you give someone the cold shoulder, it means giving them a polite snub, right? But where does that phrase come from?
Although the phrase’s origin is disputed, one explanation is that a guest would be served a shoulder of beef that was cold rather than hot. This was to be taken as a subtle hint that the guest had overstayed his welcome.
• If a person is behaving in a bizarre manner, or if things in general are out of control, we say they’ve gone haywire. What about the origin of that one?
It’s a North American expression from the 19th century referring to the wire used to hold a bale of hay together. If the wire was cut, it could tangle easily or whip around in a very dangerous way.
• Why is liquor called booze?
Often it’s mistakenly referred to as orinating with an 19th-century American distiller named E.C. Booz. Actually, the word appears to have a Germanic origin, but its true identification is shrouded in mystery. One of the words often cited is the Old High German bausen, meaning “bulge or billow.” This word is a cousin to the Dutch word busen, meaning “to drink excessively,” or “to get drunk.” Old Dutch had a similar word, bruise, which is translated as a “drinking vessel.” In English bouse later became booze, which originated from one of three words mentioned above.
• Ever wonder why the written record of a meeting is called the minutes?
Since meetings often go on and on, it must be related to time, right?
Wrong. This minute means “small.” As in, the word we pronounce “my-nute.” Way back when, the record of a meeting was written in very small writing. As a means of saving space, I guess. After the meeting, this material would be re-done in larger writing. Sounds like the beginning of shorthand.
• Here are two bits of trivia for the price of one! The origin of the phrases: “Buying a pig in a poke” and “Letting the cat out of the bag.”
Buying a pig in a poke means buying without sufficient knowledge. The phrase comes from an old English trick used at country fairs. A con man would try to sell a young pig in an unopened bag — poke — to a prospective buyer. In reality, what was in the bag was not a pig, but a cat.
If the buyer wanted to see inside the bag, upon doing so the cat would jump out. Arguably, this gave us the saying, “Letting the cat out of the bag.”
• If something is “selling like hot cakes,” why does that mean it’s selling well?
American pioneers discovered that cornmeal fried in butter on a griddle became a thin cake that was delicious while still hot. Hot cakes came to be very popular everywhere. In fact, they were so popular at country fairs and the like that cooks could hardly keep up with the demand. Eventually, something else that was popular and selling well was said to be “selling like hot cakes.”
• Why is a monkey wrench called a “monkey” wrench?
Nautically, a monkey means a modifier, “denoting a small light structure or piece of equipment contrived to suit an immediate purpose: a monkey foresail; a monkey bridge” (Word English Dictionary).
In 1840, Worcester, Massachusetts, knife manufacturer Loring Coes invented a screw-based coach wrench design in which the jaw width was set with a spinning ring fixed under the sliding lower jaw, above the handle. This was patented in 1841 and the tools were advertised and sold in the United States as monkey wrenches, a term which was already in use for the English handle-set coach wrenches (Wikipedia).
It’s one of those nationalistic disputes:
“I invented this wrench.”
“No, you didn’t. I did, long before you.”
“You did not.”
“Do you want to take this outside?”
• Where does “the real McCoy” come from?
This phrase, meaning, the original and the best, is the stuff of many tales. According to one theory, it is derived from Canadian-born American inventor, Elijah McCoy, who started out as a fireman and oiler on the railroad. His job involved frequently shutting down machinery and oiling it by hand. Elijah invented a lubricating cup that made the job automatic. He went on to invent many other similar devices, which were so successful that no really good piece of equipment was complete without a McCoy lubricating cup. If it had one, it was “the real McCoy!”