Monday, February 27, 2012

Cut and run

This phrase means to run away with all haste. Today you may hear it used by someone encouraging you to finish a task and not to run away from it. This phrase originally had a more practical and deadly application.

Chesapeake and the Shannon
Cut and run was a tactic used by naval commanders on warships in the 17th century. Some believe that the phrase applies to ships cutting their own anchors in order to get away quickly; however, this is not the case. Warships were able to quickly retract their anchor in an emergency and cutting away their anchor was not necessary.

The term applied to ships that were setting an ambush. Warships might hide in a small estuary riding on their anchor. The sails would be furled and tied off with a light rope. When an enemy vessel was spotted the captain would order the cutting of the rope to allow the sails to fall down and give the ship maximum speed.  

A tactic from the 17th century employed to capture enemy ships is now used today to denote someone giving up. It’s interesting to see how this phrase once meant running towards something and now it means to run away.  

Thank you to Daryl for suggesting this post.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

You're the cat's pyjamas

This phrase generally means that something is good or of high quality. The phrase originates from the roaring 1920s.

In the 1920s the term “cat” was used to denote the unconventional flappers from the jazz era. A flapper generally meant a women who smoke, drank, danced and even voted! These young girls grew out of the First World War and took up the ideals of the feminist movement. These young girls were the trendsetters of their day. The term “cat” was combined with pyjamas, which were a relatively new fashion, to form this phrase. It described something that is best at what it does.

In the 1920s it was popular to combine an animal with a part of the human body or an article of clothing. Generally, these phrases meant that something was excellent. Some examples include the monkey's eyebrows, the snake's hips, the clam’s garters, the eel’s ankles, the gnat’s elbow, the pig’s wings, and of course, the bee’s knees.

The 1920s was a weird time with some weird phrases. I’m sure these crazy phrases became popular in no small part to the moonshine consumed by the people who uttered these words during prohibition.

Thank you to James and Brad for suggesting the phrase. They are truly the bee’s knees.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Lock, stock and barrel

This term generally means the whole thing or everything and the original meaning of this term was very similar. Originally, this phrase referred to the three main components of the musket.

Flintlock mechanism
The lock refers to the firing mechanism. Throughout the history of muskets there have been a number of different variations of the lock mechanism, such as the matchlock or flintlock mechanism. The stock refers to the wooden butt end of the musket. The barrel refers to the barrel, obviously.

In the military muskets shipped to various locations with the lock, stock and barrel separated. I’m sure when the package arrived there was a sticker indicating “some assembly required” but their probably was a good instruction manual included. If you were a civilian and you wanted a gun you would have to obtain all three parts of the musket separately and then have them put together. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution you could go to a gunsmith to buy a fully ready weapon and you didn’t have to go through the process of obtaining the lock, stock and barrel separately.

Muskets firing in a volley

When you hear someone say lock, stock and barrel you can be thankful that you no longer need to assemble your own gun but you can buy a preassembled one. Wait, is that what we should be thankful for?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bite the bullet

"I guess I'll just bite the bullet and do my work." This is one way that you may hear this phrase uttered. In general, this phrase means to accept the unpleasant and the origin of this phrase truly lives up to its meaning.

Some War of 1812 Surgery Tools
There are a few possible origins for this phrase and one of them originates from 19th century military hospitals. During the War of 1812 military hospitals did not use anaesthetics when performing surgery on patients. One gruesome operation was the amputation of limbs. Part of the operation involved the patient being held to a table while he bit down on a strap of leather or a piece of wood. One possible origin of the bite the bullet phrase comes from the belief that surgeons would have patients bite on a musket ball if a leather strap or wood was unavailable.

This possible explanation does not seem to be accurate. For starters, patients often passed out during major surgery, such as amputations. In addition, surgeons would be unlikely to give patients a bullet to bite on since they could easily swallow it. Clearly, choking on a bullet is not conducive to healing a patient.

Another suggested origin for the phrase comes from the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The story goes that a group of soldiers recruited by the British, the Sepoys, refused to fight when a new rifle design was issued to them. The new rifle used a greased paper cartridge that the soldiers would need to bite in order to use. Many soldiers refused to do so because the Hindu soldiers feared the grease was made of cow fat and the Muslim soldiers feared that the grease was pig fat. The theory is that soldiers were told to ignore their religious beliefs and bite the bullet.

After looking at a number of different possible answers for the origin of this phrase I can't definitively say where the term came from but these are a few possibilities. Either way it is a good thing we don't use it today in the above circumstances. If you are procrastinating on doing your work and are encouraged to bite the bullet, just be thankful that you don't actually have to bite on one.

Monday, February 13, 2012


With Valentine’s Day upon us, I thought it would be best to find out a little bit more about Cupid. Today we associated Cupid with Valentine’s Day as a fat child who shoots people with his arrows causing people to fall in love. Well, not much has really changed.

In Roman mythology Cupid is the son of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Cupid is known for causing people to fall in love but he himself also fell in love. Cupid fell in love with a mortal named Psyche. Cupid married Psyche but Cupid’s jealous mother, Venus, would not allow Psyche to look at Cupid (not sure how Psyche fell in love without actually looking at Cupid).
Cupid and Psyche

One day Psyche could not resist and looked upon Cupid. As a punishment, Venus made Psyche perform three tasks each more difficult than the last. On Psyche’s third task she was required to visit the underworld in order to steal some of the beauty from Pluto’s wife. She was given a box to bring with her and told not to open it. Sadly, curiosity got the better of her, again, and she died from opening the box. Cupid found Psyche and shot an arrow through her heart to resurrect her. The gods, along with Venus, were so moved by Psyche and Cupid’s love that they made Psyche an immortal goddess.   

This Valentine’s Day if you see Cupid with his bow and arrow, he may be trying to spread love to you. On the other hand, it might just be a crazy fat guy in a cupid outfit.

Thursday, February 09, 2012


Many understand what this term refers to today by simply looking at anyone with facial hair. This term has a tragic and somewhat humorous origin.

General Burnside
The term originates from the U.S. Union General Ambrose Burnside (1824-81). Burnside stood out for two reasons: his enormous and hilarious side-whiskers and his military incompetence. One of Burnside’s major failures as a general came in 1864 during the American Civil War. While in Petersburg, Virginia, the general had the brilliant idea to dig a 150 metre long shaft leading to a point some six metres under the enemy’s position. After the digging was complete over 300 kegs of gunpowder were placed at the end of the tunnel.

On the surface this sounds like a brilliant tactical manoeuvre but when the explosives went off and Union troops rushed into the massive crater (which still exists today) they found themselves in a killing zone. Confederate troops took-up positions along the edge of the crater and began picking off the unfortunate Union troops. As many as 3,500 Union troops were killed, wounded or captured. The Battle of the Crater was the worst incident of the war.    

Originally, the mutton-chop side-whiskers had been known as “Burnsides” but after General Burnside’s very public fall from grace the term became reversed. Sideburns received their name because of the location on your face and for the general’s reputation for getting everything the wrong way around.

When you see someone with sideburns make sure you remember the Battle of the Crater and the hilariousness of General Burnside’s side-whiskers.  

Monday, February 06, 2012

Super Bowl

With the excitement of the Super Bowl behind us some may be asking: “Why did they name it the Super Bowl?” Although, it may be more likely that you are asking: “Why did I bet on them?” Either way, here is how the championship game got its name.

Super Ball Toy
Back in the 1960s the National Football League was the biggest football organization with the American Football League as its biggest rival. In 1966 both leagues decided to enter into a merger and it was decided that the champions of these leagues would play each other in a major game at the end of the year.

By the 1970s the two leagues finally merged and it came time to decided what the big game would be called. Suggestions ranged from World Championship Game to The Big One. The story goes that Lamar Hunt, the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, came up with the name Super Bowl after watching his kids playing with a Super Ball toy. Hunt suggested the name as a joke and it was quickly accepted as a temporary name until a better one could be found. Apparently, the media liked the name so much that they decided to use it and a temporary name became a permanent one.

After 46 games this temporary name has stood the test of time.

I thank Matt for suggesting this topic.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

It's raining cats and dogs

This phrase is used when you look outside and see an immense downpour of water. Although in reality, we are just thinking “I don’t want to go outside now.”

This phrase does not have a clear origin but one theory comes from a viral email back in 1999. The email circulated for some time and described how people lived in the 1500s. The email looked something like this:

1817 Caricature - Raining cats and dogs
I'll describe their houses a little. You've heard of thatch roofs, well that's all they were. Thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath. They were the only place for the little animals to get warm. So all the pets; dogs, cats and other small animals, mice, rats, bugs, all lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery so sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Thus the saying, "it's raining cats and dogs."1

This email did not explain the true origin of this phrase because dogs did not live in thatched roofs. In addition, the dogs would need to be on the outside of the roof in order to fall off. Dogs were not stupid back in the 1500s. They knew not to sit on top of a roof in a torrential downpour.

One of the best explanations of this phrase comes from the filthy streets of England in the 17th century. The streets of England in the 17th century were filled with filth and when heavy rains fell the water carried away dirt and the corpses of dead animals. These animals did not fall from the sky but their appearance in the streets many have caused this phrase.

When you find yourself walking in a heavy downpour, be thankful that the streets are not littered with dead cats and dogs. If you want to read some positive stories about cats, you can visit my friend Laurel's blog.