What’s one of the best things about the English Language? The fact that we often have no idea what we’re actually saying. We’re so dumb like that! See Part I
Chip on the Shoulder
Today’s Meaning: “To bear a grudge, or to perceive inferiority.”
Nope, nothing to do with sculptors sneezing and sending their chisel right through the marble of their statue’s shoulder, this old phrase is actually to do with woodchips and manly men, spoilin’ for a fight. In 18th century America, when two fellas were squaring up to do pugilism on eachother, it was a provocative statement for one of them to grab a woodchip, rest it on his shoulder and dare the other to knock it off. Think of it as yesteryear’s boofhead equivalent to the open-armed ‘come at me bro’ taunt of today – but using a prop from the garden. Strutting about with a chip literally on the shoulder was ye olde badasse’s way of letting everyone in town know he was one angry man and well-prepared to throw down.
Wait With Bated Breath
Today’s Meaning: “To feel anxious or excited while waiting for something.”
Often spelled incorrectly as ‘baited breath’, you’d be forgiven to believe this was something to do with old sailors lingering about the docks with breath smelling like pilchards. But it has nothing to do with halitosis at all, as the term is actually ‘bated’, shortened from ‘abated’ – meaning lessened or lowered. It originates from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, when the beleaguered usurer Shylock denies Antonio a loan, telling him he won’t bow to him and speak in ‘bated breath’ (a soft tone) because of Antonio’s previous jerklike actions (ie. spitting on Shylock, kicking him and being a general bastard). How the idea of anticipation entered the phrase, though is anyone’s guess.
Today’s Meaning: “Empty, insincere or nonsensical langauge.”
It’s easy to sneer down at the great unwashed from the lofty balconies of so-called ‘high-brow’ entertainment, judging them for their reality TV and canned laughter. True enough, the likes of Please Marry My Son and The Kardashians destroy brain cells faster than huffing spraypaint and a career in boxing, but people in glass houses should not throw stones. We may well describe inane television as ‘claptrap’ but the origin of the term lies in the glory age of high-brow snootery. At some point in the mid-18th century, classical composers and playwrights began to purposefully insert dialogue or crescendos designed specifically to rouse reaction from the audience. The kow-towing to the crowd was to spark applause – a trap for claps. The practice influenced a new direction in theatre especially, from Shakespearean plays to bombastic Victorian farce and comedy operas. The claptrap even had competing producers hiring groups of ‘clappers’ to sit amongst audiences and applaud voraciously at certain points to lull the other onlookers into similar reactions. Or they’d even hire groups to heckle and boo their rival’s shows. Cluey enough observers criticised the shameless practice, but cueing a reaction continues today, and effectively. [APPLAUD].
Today’s meaning: ‘Someone or something that is failing to function with little hope of recovery.’
Every now and again a phrase comes along with just awfully morbid origins, especially when they are literal. And involve explosions. ‘Basket case’ originates from the depressing halls of United States military hospitals at the end of World War One. It was a colloquial term whispered across the wards that referred to those desperately unlucky soldiers who’d been shot, grenaded, landmined, bayoneted, artillery shelled and mustard gassed to the point that they were left so brutally incapacitated, usually limbless, that they would need to be transported around in a basket. A bit like ET, but way sadder. (Note: Never, ever look up the 1982 film Basketcase, or its sequels if you ever wish to sleep again. Oh god!)
Today’s Meaning “An insane, or mentally unstable person.”
For most of history (until relatively recently, in fact) when someone started to go a little cray-cray and lose the plot, the elders and wise men of the community agreed on the most logical conclusion for the behaviour: it’s the moon’s fault. Yes, the moon, the timeless symbol of mystique, was believed to directly influence certain people by imposing on them strange behaviours through its own cycles. Without any understanding of certain behavioural disorders, such as bipolar or cyclothymia, the peoples of yore simply assumed it was the moon pulling the strings, as it does the tides, and casting people into spells of madness. And so the Latin-derived luna, meaning moon, was used to describe those people who suffered intermittent insanity. The moon was also linked to the female menstrual cycle, but let’s not go there.
Didn’t Pan Out
Today’s Meaning: “Events or circumstances didn’t eventuate as you had hoped.”
When some lucky carpenter struck gold in California in 1848, every man and his greedy dog scrambled to the American east to begin digging up the terrain in search of the shiny stuff. The most common method for the goldseekers was to use a pan to sift through the rocks in riverbeds hoping to uncover small chunks of gold. The belief was that every cubic foot of gravel would ‘pan out’ to around 20 dollars in gold. But those predictions were a little optimistic and after months spent knee deep in muddy water shaking a pan full of pebbles, most eventually admitted defeat and gave up the gold search – lamenting later that their dreams of untold wealth ‘just didn’t pan out’.
Rack your Brain
Today’s Meaning: “To strain your brain to remember or understand something.”
Medieval life was not all plague this and peasantry that – there was lots of torture going on too. The medieval folk loved their torture, inventing hundreds of sick and twisted ways to cause immense pain and suffering to fellow human beings. One of the favourite devices of the times was the rack, a simple machine that used ropes and cranks to slowly, but agonisingly surely, tear the limbs right off a body. Nifty! Shakespeare, doing what he did best, verbed the word (see what I just did there?) and ‘rack’ became a synonym for ‘strain’. Over time its use as a verb settled solely on mental strain, and is still used often today.
Flash in the Pan
Today’s Meaning: “Something initially impressive and showy, but fails to deliver anything of substance or value.”
The mention of pan, like the above ‘pan out’, leads many to believe this idiom also has roots in the gold rush days. Prospectors were supposedly excited by seeing a ‘flash’ in their pans, only to disappointedly discover it wasn’t gold but merely a glint from the sun’s reflection, or something. That’s a myth, but the real origin is equally literal. Old flintlock muskets used in the Napoleonic era and American Civil war were designed with little pans that stored charges of gunpowder to fire the pellet down the barrel, out the muzzle and into the baddy’s chest. Sometimes (well, often) a soldier would pull the trigger and light up gunpowder charge in the pan, but the gun would malfunction and fail to shoot a bullet. When that happened it was known as a ‘flash in the pan’, and also: ‘oh shit, we’re all going to die now.’
Today’s Meaning: “To speak enthusiastically”
I personally reserve a special kind of hatred for this overused, annoying phrase. It’s not clever and it doesn’t make you an expert on the subject. Anyhow, it is interesting as it’s the only thing keeping the archaic term ‘wax’ from extinction. The word ‘wane’, as in ‘to decrease’ is still kicking about, but everyone seems to have forgotten its direct opposite number, ‘wax’ – meaning ‘to grow/increase’. Technically you can wax a lot of things. You can wax your credit card limit, or wax the television volume or even wax a quaint little herb garden. But for whatever reason, perhaps with a sniff of irony, this dying word survives only within a phrase about speaking with excitement and poeticism. It also just makes me think about eating a candle, which is just weird.