Friday, November 22, 2013

Popular Sayings and Expressions

Back in the 90s, I suggested an idea to the producer of the Walt Bodine Show, a daily radio show on KCUR, PBS's affiliate in Kansas City, Mo. The producer loved the idea of discussing the origins of everyday sayings, and agreed to go ahead. Evidently during the first show, the telephone lines lit up “like the 4th of July” and so it turned into a monthly slot. I appeared with a professor of law, and a professor of English. Since the show was live, I did extensive research because so many callers wanted an answer from “that English woman.” Even so, I was stumped many times, and looked to the professors for help. We were known as the Word Mavens. I heard some of following expressions over the last few weeks and thought readers might enjoy reading their origins.

Paying Through the Nose - To pay exorbitantly
During the 9th century, when the Vikings imposed a poll tax on the Irish known as a ‘nose tax’ because people who failed to pay had their noses slit as punishment.

Back to Square One - Starting at the beginning
This expression was often used during board games and hopscotch, but nowadays it’s used in common language to describe anything that needs a ‘do over.’ The saying appears to have originated in England during the early days of radio (before television.) Obviously, it's very difficult to describe what's going on during football (soccer) matches if a person can't actually see the pitch (field), so a diagram of the pitch was published in the Radio Times each week wherein the pitch was divided into numbered squares. Then, as the match progressed, the commentator would continually refer to the square that each player was in, and to whom the ball was passed. Should a defender pass the ball back to his goalkeeper, the commentator would say the ball was passed back to 'square one.' Even today, most goalies wear the jersey #1. 
Dead as a Doornail - No sign of life
This goes back to ancient times when a doors had a heavy metal knocker which was swung and struck a heavy knob or doornail. Since the doornail was regularly rapped, after some time there was no life in it, hence "dead as a doornail".  Dickens used the expression - Old Marley “was as dead as a doornail.”

Down in the Dumps - Unhappy, miserable
Dump is thought to be derived from a Dutch work domp (meaning haze or dullness). During the Elizabethan period a domp was also any kind of a slow, mournful song or dance.

Face the Music - Accept Punishment
In most Western armies, any officer being cashiered from his regiment is required to stand on the parade ground and face the drum squad who tap slowly while the reasons for the man's dismissal are read out and his uniform defaced and stripped of insignia.