Did you know?
By Al Owens
I like the English language so much, that there are times when I actually use
it. Today is one of those days.
Not only that, I’m always thrilled when I learn about the idioms that have been
sprinkled liberally all over our language that give it more flavor.
Like the word “critters”. Did you know, as I’ve learned, that “critters” is
really a southern derivation of the word creatures? Now that you think about
that, doesn’t that really make sense?
If you look around on the internet, you can find all kinds of origins of words
and phrases, that’ll make you ask, “Why didn’t I already know that?” I’ve found
entire web sites devoted to those kinds of things.
To be honest, some of the explanations for our more colorful phrases and most
popular idioms seem a bit stretched. But a lot of them seem logical and quite
Let’s look at the phrase “passing the buck.” That term is derived from the table
game popularized in 19th century America known as poker. (The one that’s
annoyingly popular on television today)
The buck was really a marker passed from player to player to let the other
players know who would be the next player to deal the cards.
So after one player dealt the cards, he’d “pass the buck” to the next player.
Harry Truman, no doubt, was referring to that phrase when he told America, “The
buck stops here,” after he took office. When you think about it, that was a
rather appropriate poker reference for a U.S. President who inherited something
called “The New Deal!”
There are other references to the game of poker that have become part of the
English lexicon. If you’d like to add something to a conversation, you just may
tell somebody you’d like to “put your two cents in.” That stems directly from
poker, when people really put in their two bits.
If you’re facing a situation in which you find yourself at a distinct
disadvantage, you can say, “The chips are down.” Those chips are often a
replacement for real money in poker and in other forms of gambling. See what I
When you ask somebody to, “keep your shirt on,” you’re really using a phrase
that got its supposed origins in the mid-19th century. It seems that men in
those days liked to wear freshly starched shirts. When they’d engage in a heated
verbal altercation, they may have eventually gone outside and taken their shirts
off – before fighting. Thus the term, “keep your shirt on,” is a way of saying,
“I don’t want to fight.”
We know that when somebody says, “they bought the farm,” it means the person in
question died. That phrase comes from World War I, when the government gave
enough money (in death benefits) to families who’d lost loved ones in battle, to
buy a farm!
If something is, “brand spanking new,” it’s just like the baby who’d just been
spanked at birth. I don’t think there’s any need for further explanation of that
one. It is curious though, that I’d never thought about the origin of that
phrase until I came across it on the internet.
The Duesenberg was an American luxury car manufactured from 1913 until 1937. It
was sleek, fast and of high quality. Some people simply said it was a “doozy.”
So that’s where that word came from.
The political term, “Throw his hat into the ring,” has been traced to Theodore
Roosevelt. "My hat's in the ring. The fight is on and I'm stripped to the buff,"
he told a Cleveland, Ohio interviewer in 1912. (That was the same presidential
campaign that brought him to speak at the corner of Morgantown and South Streets
in Uniontown, by the way. I sure hope he wasn’t stripped to the buff that day!)
By “throwing his hat into the ring,” Roosevelt had borrowed a phrase from the
manly art of boxing.
It seems that in the 19th century, boxers would issue challenges to their
sparring partners by throwing their hats into the boxing ring. Soon after that,
they’d throw their own bodies into the ring, and start throwing punches.
Some of those boxers, however, wouldn’t be inclined to throw their hats into the
ring. That’s because they used to store personal items under their hats. Sort of
the earliest “man bags.”
In fact, the phrase, “Keep it under your hat,” owes itself to the fact that men
who didn’t want to disclose some hidden items, would have been inclined to keep
those things under their hats. It’s a phrase that’s now, as you know, used as a
way of asking somebody to keep a secret.
I believe those people who resist revealing secrets are being as, “cool as
cucumbers.” According to one internet web site, curious scientists in the 1970’s
used thermometers to gauge the temperature of cucumbers. They found that they’re
really 20 degrees cooler than the outside air.
Those enterprising scientists had most likely taken their cues from a play
written in 1610. It seems the playwrights referred to a female character as
being, “as cold as cucumbers.”
The phrase meant that she was unemotional and self-possessed. I’m not sure how
she looked, but she just may have been considered a “tomato.” And sadly, I have
no idea from where that termed is derived!