From the Editor – Words and Their Stories

September 25, 2015 Let's Discuss 12

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I’m working on a new editing project. It’s a paranormal book set in the mid-1800’s, so I’ve found myself looking up words and phrases a lot, wondering if they were a bit too modern. I have to say, I’ve been surprised by some of the origins of certain words and phrases – a lot of them are way older than I realized, and some phrases just have really strange or interesting stories behind them. Here are some examples that I came across in my research:

  • OK – I thought this word seemed a little modern in dialogue (even spelled okay), so I was surprised to see that it came into popular use before 1840 when it was used in Martin Van Buren’s campaign.
  • Daddy – When I think of kids talking to their fathers in “the olden days” I think of more formal or archaic words – father, pa or papa. But did you know the word daddy has been around since the 15th century?
  • chuck – Same with the word chuck (when used to mean throwing something)–as in I chucked the ball across the room. Sounds like modern slang, right? Apparently, it’s been in use since the 15th century too!
  • terms of endearment – Honey has been documented as a term of endearment since at least the 14th century! Baby was first used in 1839, but sugar only appeared in 1930.
  • armed to the teeth – Did you know that medieval warriors often had so many weapons that they would even carry one in their teeth? Yep – that’s where this one comes from.
  • balls to the wall – Nope, this phrase isn’t vulgar. It actually refers to the controls of an airplane. The ‘balls’ were on top of the levers that controlled the plane’s speed, and pushing them forward toward the front wall of the cockpit made the plane go faster.
  • cold feet – This phrase is a military term. Since soldiers often didn’t have shoes, especially before the late 19th century, they often had frozen or very cold feet and they couldn’t rush into battle.
  • cold shoulder – This phrase has nothing to do with being emotionally cold. In the olden days, an unwelcome visitor would have been given the cheapest and most common type of food–cold shoulder of mutton.
  • get your goat – In horse racing, nervous horses were calmed by putting a goat in the stall with them. If someone wanted the horse to lose the race, they could steal the goat and upset the horse.
  • let the cat out of the bag – Farmers would bring young pigs to market in a bag, but a dishonest farmer might replace a pig with a cat. Once the cat was out of the bag everyone would know about the trickery!
  • pull out all the stops – An organist pulls out all the stops (knobs) in an organ for maximum volume.
  • hunky-dory – Did you know that this word was first used in the mid-1800’s!
  • red letter day – Monks used to hand-write calendars (of course) and used red ocher for the important days (like days of the saints).
  • sidekick – This word actually came from the days of rampant pick-pocketing! The side pocket (or side kick) was the safest place to keep your valuables. Now it refers to a person who stays right by your side and keeps you safe.
  • pipe dream – This actually comes from the hallucinations people had when smoking opium from a pipe!

There are tons more of these that I could list, but these are just some of the ones I found most interesting. Are there any phrases thatyou use that you’ve wondered where they came from? I want to know!

12 Responses to “From the Editor – Words and Their Stories”

  1. Wendy

    LOVE THIS! Especially, I have to admit, balls to the wall. I had assumed it was vulgar, and as such, made no sense–why would you do that? Wouldn’t it hurt? etc.

    Wendy recently posted: Open Endings
  2. Alicia

    This is so neat- I love this stuff. I’ve wondered about OK too, but I remember looking it up at some point. As an editor I’m always looking stuff up too, and the one that got me most recently was ‘myriad’- most people I feel like use it as a noun, a synonym to ‘plethora’, maybe, but in this case it was an adjective meaning ‘innumerable’, and I hadn’t known that! I didn’t know it could be used as an adjective and it sounded weird because I’ve been using it as a noun this whole time. Words are so cool.

  3. Bregje

    I love hearing how words or phrases originated. My idea for ‘the cold sholder’ was quite different, but this origin actually sounds quite logical. I can’t imagine people being armed to the teeth literally though!

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