Language nerds: Phrase origins may surprise you

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I love language. I love words. Okay, full disclosure here: I’m one of those grammar nerds who actually ENJOYS (immensely) diagramming sentences! I find everything about syntax and placement and word choice quite fascinating. In much the same way that sports buffs who yell at their TV screens in agreement with coaching choices in a football game (i.e. Great play! Nice call!) I’ve been known to shout kudos to writers for superb, unique and creative word choices! Speaking of nerdy language interests, what about word origins? Don’t you ever wonder how certain words or phrases find their colloquial places in our mainstream speech?

For instance, do you know the historic origin of the phrase “chairman of the board”? In medieval times, between 1150 and 1550 it was common for dining tables to come in two pieces, a top piece and a base. Servants would disassemble a table in between meals to increase floor space. The word “table” derives from “tabula,” which is the Latin word for “board.” During meals, most of the diners sat on stools and benches, except for the host, who typically sat in an ornamental chair; hence, “chairman of the board” refers to the head of the household who would sit at the fancy chair “at the board” in the dining hall!

Let’s have some more language fun with historic phrase origins

As I research this whimsical article, thoughts swirl in my mind of creative board games that could include guessing historic phrase origins! Any entrepreneurs out there? If you invent this, let us know! For now, let’s take a look a few more common phrases whose origins may surprise you:

language origins, artisan jug

  1. Buttload: I used to (and kind of still do) cringe whenever one of my kids would use this term. It just sounds so — icky. During one such moment of frustration, I lamented as to where this particularly disgusting term originated. You can imagine the shade my kids threw at me in their defense when I discovered there is existing etymology for this word! It’s sort of a combination of several terms, but in a nutshell, a “butt” refers to a volume of 126 gallons. Typically referring to a “butt” of wine, the extended phrase “buttload” developed over time to mean “any large of amount of anything.” To MY defense, most etymologists consider the word mildly vulgar slang! lol
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  2. Dickens: Have you wondered why people refer to Charles Dickens when they’re frightened or using an expletive? Examples: He scared the dickens out of me! or What the dickens are you doing? Well — it turns out the historic origin of this phrase has nothing to do with Charles and was actually in use three centuries before he was even born! It became part of common language in the 16th century and can be found in Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” when Mistress Page exclaims, “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is!” It was coined as a euphemism for “devil”. In fact, many word nerds believe it is a shortened version of the word “devilkin” but has nothing to do with 19th century author, Charles Dickens.
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  3. Don’t let the cat out of the bag: Most people use this saying when they’re talking about revealing secrets. The historic origin of this common language phrase is 18th century England. Apparently, there were a number of crooksters on the streets back then. It was common to sell suckling pigs and to transport them to customers in bags. Fraudulent salesmen, however, would stuff cats into bags instead! What a shock unsuspecting customers would get when they arrived home and opened their parcels!
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  4. Never look a gift horse in the mouth: Consider this little gem of a saying as a lesson in good manners. When horses age, their gums recede. One who is knowledgeable in all things equine understands that gum recession causes a horse’s teeth to appear elongated. Back in the day, if a person gifted someone with a horse and the receiver of the gift immediately opened the horse’s mouth to check the gums, it was considered a rude and ungrateful gesture. It would mean that the receiver of the gift was checking the value of the gift. Hence, the phrase, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” is a reminder that it is truly the thought that counts not the monetary value of a gift. Shout out to homemade gifts!
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  5. You’re pulling my leg: One thing I’ve learned while researching this story is that the 18th century streets of England were dangerous places! Again, we travel back in time for the historic language origin of this phrase and find ourselves among the dark alley criminals of the time. It seems that more easily target a potential victim for robbery, criminals would suddenly grab hold of a person’s leg and yank them to the ground! Our common usage of the phrase is much less sinister, as we typically interpret it to mean “Stop joking or stop kidding me.” Its origins remind us to steer clear of dark alleys and deserted streets at night!

I thought it would be fun to enjoy this festive exploration of common language phrases. Things have been so stressful for everyone lately. As you navigate troubled times in our nation, try to remember to take time to enjoy the little things in life. If watching the news stresses you out, turn off your TV! Enjoy non-stressful activities like hunting down the historic origins of whimsical language phrases! Do you have a fun phrase to add to our list? Leave it in the comments under this post our Facebook page!


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