Everyday Words and Phrases
We’ve all heard, and probably even used, most of these phrases.
Ever wonder where they originated?
THE WHOLE NINE YARDS—American fighter planes in WW2 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 given it the whole nine yards.
BUYING THE FARM—This is synonymous with dying. During WW1 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.
IRON CLAD CONTRACT—This came about from the ironclad 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 jack knife 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” to the next player. If that player accepted then “the buck stopped there”.
COBWEB—The Old English word for “spider” was “cob”.
SLEEP TIGHT—Early beds were made with a wooden frame. Ropes were tied across the frame in a criss-cross 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.
SHOWBOAT—These were floating theaters built on a barge that was pushed by a steamboat. These played small towns along theMississippi River. Unlike the boat shown in the movie “Showboat” these did not have an engine. They were gaudy and attention grabbing which is why we say someone who is being the life of the party is “showboating”.
OVER A BARREL—In the days before CPR a drowning victim would be placed face down over a barrel and the barrel would be rolled back and forth in an effort to empty the lungs of water. It was rarely effective. If you are over a barrel you are in deep trouble.
BARGE IN—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”.
HOGWASH—Steamboats carried both people and animals. Since pigs smelled so bad they would be washed before being put on board. The mud and other filth that was washed off were considered useless “hog wash”.
BARRELS OF OIL—When the first oil wells were drilled they had made no provision for storing the liquid so they used water barrels. That is why, to this day, we speak of barrels of oil rather than gallons.
HOT OFF THE PRESS—As the paper goes through the rotary printing press friction causes it to heat up. Therefore, if you grab the paper right off the press it is hot. The expression means to get immediate information.
FALLEN OFF THE WAGON—The wagon in this American expression refers to the water wagons used to sprinkle water on the streets to keep the dust down. During the times of Prohibition in the 19th century, men often climbed onto these wagons and took an oath they would give up alcohol and drink only water. This gave rise to the expression to be on the water cart/wagon; it was later shortened to on the wagon. When these individuals broke their pledge and started hitting the bottle again, they were said to have fallen off the wagon.