Monday, March 26, 2012

Son of a gun

Today this phrase is used as a term of affection or admiration. Originally, this phrase was used as a euphemism for a child born out of wedlock, in other words, a bastard.

It may come as a surprise to some that during the 16th and 17th centuries there were a number of women living aboard warships in the British navy. Some male crewmembers were ‘recruited’ into the Royal Navy through press gangs (basically you were snatched up and thrown into the navy). These men were not allowed to leave the ship, since they would run away, so a number of prostitutes served on these ships.

These women are responsible for giving us the term ‘show a leg,’ or as many know it ‘shake a leg.’ When the men were woken up in the morning those still in their hammocks were told to show a leg, this term meant ‘get to work.’ The women on the ship dangled their legs out of the hammock to prove that they were not a crewmen.

Pregnancy was inevitable and the only place for a woman to have any privacy during labour was behind a screen placed between two guns (or cannons if you prefer). If the child was a girl then the mother and child were dumped ashore at the earliest convenience. Male babies stayed with the ship, and since it was difficult to accurately know whom the father of the baby was, the child was listed in the ship’s log as ‘son of a gun.’   

If anyone calls you a son of a gun, you can just remember what that once meant and that to the best of your knowledge you have never served on the high seas.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Clean as a whistle

This term generally means that something is clean or spotless. We use this phrase to refer to things that are exceptionally clean. The origin of this phrase has a number of possibilities; I will look at three possible origins.

One possible origin comes from the whistle sound of a sword as it swishes through the air when decapitating someone. The thought is that the expression would be uttered if the decapitation was a clean cut. Although, I don’t really associate the word clean with a decapitation.

A second possible origin comes from a whistle made from a reed or a piece of wood. Small debris or moisture can adversely affect a whistle if it is not properly cleaned. In order for a whistle, or a similar instrument, to make proper sounds or tones it must be kept clean.  

Another possible origin comes from trains. Trains have, or had, brass whistles for signalling and warning people. These whistles were always kept clean and shiny, hence the phrase clean as a whistle.

This phrase has a number of different possible origins but just be thankful that we don’t use it for decapitations anymore.

I thank Danielle for suggesting this phrase.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Luck of the Irish

With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, I thought it would be prudent to find an appropriate phrase. Luck of the Irish is generally a phrase that you may hear on St. Patrick’s Day; however, this term actually meant bad luck.

As any true-blooded Irishman, which I am not, will tell you, the Irish have not had a particularly lucky history. This is where the term luck of the Irish applies to their long history of bad luck including conquest, famines and annoying leprechauns. Despite their unlucky history, Ireland and the Irish seem to be able to bounce back.

It appears that a likely origin for this phrase comes from the United States. During the gold rush many Irish people headed out West to find their fortune (or pot o’ gold). When the Irish arrived many did not like them and the Irish were generally treated badly. When the Irish found gold many would simply attribute their discovery to dumb luck instead of their skill. This is how the term luck of the Irish can also be used for someone who has dumb luck.    

This St. Patrick’s Day when you utter the phrase luck of the Irish you can attribute it to good luck, bad luck or just simple dumb luck.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Teddy bear

Everyone knows what a teddy bear is and I’m sure most of you have a childhood memory of having one. Of course, I’m sure there are some of you who still sleep with one at night time. The origin of this phrase comes from an incident involving former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

From The Washington Post, 1902
Roosevelt’s nickname was ‘Teddy’ in obvious reference to his first name. While on a trip to Mississippi in 1902 Teddy was invited on a bear hunting trip by the state’s governor. During the trip many other hunters managed to kill a bear or two, but Teddy was unable to find one. Some of the hunters decided to help the president by cornering, clubbing and then tying a bear to a tree. The president was encouraged to shoot the bear but he refused stating that it was unsportsmanlike. He instructed that the bear be put out of its misery.
Theodore Roosevelt

This incident became the topic of a political cartoon that inspired Morris Michtom to create a new toy. He constructed a stuffed bear cub and placed it in his store window with the name “Teddy’s bear,” after receiving permission from the president to use his name. The new toy became a resounding success.

Now you know where the name of your beloved toy came from and you can remember this story when you cuddle up in bed with your stuffed animal tonight.

Monday, March 05, 2012


This term means to put something to one side in order to come back to it later. It can also mean to classify something or someone into a specific category. For example, if you are good a performing a certain task you may find your boss always assigning that task to you.

In Medieval times (the actually time period, not the entertainment location) pigeons were kept as domestic birds for their meat. The pigeonhole referred to the openings in the wall or a hole in a specially made box for pigeons to live in.

By the late 18th century, the arrangement of compartments in writing cabinets and offices that were used to sort and file documents became known as pigeonholes for their resemblance to the old pigeon compartments.

By the 19th century, the term changed to refer to something that you would put aside to come back to later or to classify information.  

If you feel that you are being pigeonholed at work just be thankful that your boss doesn’t plan to eat you like the poor pigeon.

Thank you Lauren for suggesting this word.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Jump on the bandwagon

This term refers to people who join a growing movement in support of something or someone, usually in an opportunist way, when the movement becomes successful. This is very popular during election campaigns.

P.T. Barnum bandwagon
The term bandwagon originates from the 19th century in reference to the wagon that carried the band (people were really inventive when it came to names back then). These wagons were popular with the traveling circuses that traveled throughout the U.S. Many politicians noticed that circus workers were skilled at attracting attention so they decided to incorporate the highly decorated bandwagons into their election campaigns.

As the bandwagons went down the street many would jump on the bandwagon in order to show their support. Eventually the term switched to a more metaphorical use when bandwagons as a campaigning tool became less popular.

In an election campaign if you are tempted to jump on the bandwagon just remember your principles and don’t bow to popular demand. On the other hand, if you prefer, you can just imagine yourself at the circus since we all know that is what most election campaigns end up being.

Thank you to Darren for the suggestion.