Monday, September 29, 2008

Work Related Sayings

Pink Slip – Dismissal notice
The dreaded Pink Slip - none of us want to receive one. I have been unable to find the origin although we can assume that termination notices were once printed on pink paper.

A Cushy Job - A great job with little effort
During World War II a cushy job was one that did not involve danger or too much hard work. An Anglo-Indian term, cushy is derived from the Hindi, Khush, meaning pleasant.

Boarding the Gravy Train – Where the money flows
It’s easy to see how gravy, a rich sauce used in the 14th century to accompany meat would later be used to described a pleasant trip or something extra. Later, it became an American expression used by railroad workers to describe a well-paid job requiring little effort. Today we use the term to describe financial rewards.

Fish or Cut Bait - Make yourself useful
There is no room in a cramped fishing boat for idle people – so, if you’re not going to fish, then get to work cutting bait, in other words – make yourself useful.

Get Sacked - To be fired
This expression originated in the Industrial Revolution in England around 1700. In those days, mechanics were expected to supply their own tools while working in the age-old factories of the period. When a worker was discharged, he was usually given a sack to carry his tools away.

Where There’s Muck There’s Brass - Money can be made from hard, dirty work
At the end of the 17th century in England, pennies, halfpennies and farthings were made in brass because it was less expensive than gold or silver. As a result, a farthing (one fourth of a penny) was worth nothing. This led to the saying; it’s not worth a brass farthing. Since that time, brass has become a slang word for money.

The Bosses in the Smoke Filled Room - Back stage maneuvering
First used by an Associated Press reporter, Kirke Simpson, who used it to describe back-stage maneuvering for Warren Harding’s nomination at the 1920 Republican convention.

Yellow Dog Contract - Signifying worthlessness
These contracts are illegal now but at one time they were a very good way for employers to stop the spread of unionism. The employers encouraged the employees to sign a contract stating they would not join a union. Yellow Dog was used as an epithet in the 1800’s to signify worthlessness at a time when the Knights of Labor and the A.F.L. were beginning to flex their muscles.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The North American Cowboy

Just mention the word cowboy to some people and a little smile appears on their faces. Perhaps they remember their favorite characters from television shows such as Rawhide and Wagon Train. The characters in these shows seem to have become part of our lives. In fact, we have never forgotten those men who sat high in their saddles, who conducted themselves by a code of ethics and who portrayed all that was good about the West. We can only imagine how hard the real cowboys worked in the mid 1800s. It was a unique way of life and not suited to all men.

Some etymologists suggest the word “cowboy” came from Middle English/Germanic roots but others say it originated in medieval Ireland and was used to describe a young man who tended cows. One thing we know for sure is that the term was widely used during the late 1860s when young Confederate soldiers returned to Texas. There was little work available, but there was an abundance of longhorn cattle roaming freely on the prairies. The young men rounded up thousands of unbranded longhorn cattle that they sold to land barons. This roundup was sometimes called a “cow hunt.”

Some cowboys worked on ranches while others chose the trail. These cowboys usually owned their own saddle but rode the company’s horses. They averaged between 10 and 15 miles a day as they travelled north across swollen rivers, endured lightning storms and stampedes that could be started by the flash of a match. The average age for these young men was about 25 year and, despite their youth; the work was so hard that almost two thirds never again worked on a cattle drive and chose a different line of work.

The men who did choose the trail rather than working closer to home led a very hard life. As the Topeka Commonwealth stated on August 15, 1871, “The Texas cattle herder is a character, the life of which can be found nowhere else on earth. Of course he is unlearned and illiterate, but with few wants and meager ambitions. His diet is principally navy plug and whiskey and the occupation dearest to his heart is gambling. His dress consists of a flannel shirt with a handkerchief encircling his neck, butternut pants and a pair of long boots, in which are always the legs of his pants. His head is covered by a sombrero, which is a Mexican hat with a high crown and a brim of enormous dimensions. He generally wears a revolver on each side of his person, which he will use with as little hesitate on a man as on a wild animal. Such a character is dangerous and desperate and each one has generally killed his man.”

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Victory Sign or Insult?

When Winston Churchill gave the victory sign after England won the Second World War, the sign was quickly adopted by many individuals around the world to show solidarity with a particular group or movement. This photograph, with the palm of the hand facing outward is the proper victory sign. However, I have seen many people on television and in newspapers making what they think is the victory sign, and instead are making a rude gesture. Palm of the hand facing an audience is a victory sign - back of the hand facing the audience is an insult!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Street Sellers - Patterers

There is an old fashioned term to describe a person who is talkative and appears to be well versed in a particular subject - it is said that he has “all the patter.” I have heard the term for years, and wondered where and how this saying originated. Just recently, I found a reference to it in Henry Mayhew’s book titled Henry Mayhew’s London published in 1851.

Mayhew describes the word ‘patterer’ as slang for someone who speaks constantly. The individual is always a man (never a woman) who collects information on the street, and then prints that information on a sheet of paper to be sold on the street corners of London for half a penny. He would entice a passer by with the promise of some salacious information such as recent murder with all the gory details, robberies, attacks and other tragedies. Often the ‘stories’ were not verified and were simply heard third hand, then printed up ready for the evening edition. The curious and gullible individuals who bought the paper were perhaps left wishing they had purchased a better known newspaper instead.

During Victorian times 1850-1902, the news was printed on both sides of a large piece of paper that was nicknamed a “broadsheet” and was sold on street corners for one penny.

Mayhew also writes of sealed packets that were given away with the purchase of a straw and sold only to gentlemen not ladies. The literature contained in these packets was described as “unsavory” and could be off-color jokes, political songs, sketches or worse. The ruse known as “strawing” allowed the patterer to claim they sold only straws and not forbidden material. The purchaser (of course) would not know the contents of the packet until he had purchased the straw. In his book, Mayhew recounts an interview with a patterer. “It’s astonishing how few people ever complain of having been took in. It hurts their feelings to lose a halfpenny, but it hurts their pride too much, when they’re had, to grumble in public about it.”

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On Tenter Hooks

It is said that England was built on the wool trade and, even to this day, the Chancellor of the Exchequer sits on a wool sack to signify how important the wool trade has been to the development of the United Kingdom. Many people today still refer to the beautiful churches in England as “wool” churches because it was the wealth of the wool trade that enabled the towns to grow and the churches to be built.

During medieval times, the Flemish Weavers who immigrated to England taught the locals their own special technique of fulling and stretching the wool. The wool was first soaked in clean water and fuller’s earth and then pounded and/or ‘walked on’, a system similar to the treading of grapes that meshed the wool. Potash was sometimes used in the fulling process to thicken the wool but stale urine and fuller’s earth was also used as an economical alternative.

When the wool was ready, it was stretched over two frames, a lower and an upper frame called a Tenter. The wool cloth was then secured in place every few inches using nails called tenterhooks. If the weaver had performed his duties well, the cloth would be evenly stretched and reasonably square. This of course required not only skill and expertise, but also a high level of tension.

So, it is easy to see how the term could be used to describe an individual whose emotions were raw, taunt and uptight - in other words, the person was on “tenter hooks.”