NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 11, 2013

An interesting history of some modern sayings

As I See It
Jonathan Wells

---- — We use today many expressions the meanings of which are clear enough, but whose literal meaning may be lost — at least we don’t think about it. This is because a lot of them originated decades or centuries ago. (Don’t take it amiss if I am telling you something you already know — you’ll find the origins interesting to recall.)

The metaphorical expression “a flash in the pan” is commonly used today to describe some event which is momentarily exciting, but whose interest or effect quickly disappears from the scene. This idiom comes from the days of the flintlock, or perhaps even its predecessor the matchlock. In those days you fired your musket by putting powder in the priming pan next to a small hole drilled through the barrel. This hole allowed fire from the gunpowder in the pan to ignite the powder charge that propelled the musket ball. If the flint ignited the powder in the pan but the weapon did not fire, you had only the “flash in the pan” — bright and colorful but ineffective.

You also had to “keep your powder dry,” although how in the world that could be done in the pouring rain I’ve never figured out. You would probably often want to chuck your musket into the river, “lock, stock, and barrel — “ except in a battle you’d in probably need the backup bayonet (which got its name centuries ago from Bayonne, France — no, not New Jersey — where it was invented). Speaking of musket-chucking, the Germans have a nice phrase for “throw in the towel.” Someone who quits or gives up “wirft die Flinte gleich ins Korn” — he “throws the musket into the cornfield.”

I think “kick over the traces” is still occasionally used to describe someone who leaves his job and family and heads for California on his Harley, although it may be that I am the only surviving user. It means to rebel against the conventional rules of behavior, doing what you want and thumbing your nose at authority. The “traces” were long pieces of leather that joined a vehicle to the horse pulling it. A horse “kicking over the traces” kicks its legs over these pieces of leather and goes out of control, scorning the equine proprieties. “Thumbing your nose,” incidentally, goes back at least to the time of Shakespeare.

Although he may eat oats, a horse is not usually said to “sow his wild oats” (although this might be a reason he bolted before the stable door was shut). This phrase is usually reserved for a young man who is kicking over the social “traces” of his upbringing, usually those involving sex. Since wild oats were really a weed, “sowing wild oats” became initially a way to describe profitless activities. Says one impressively erudite “Strech” on Yahoo Answers: “Given the reputation of oat grain to have invigorating properties and the obvious connection between plant seeds and human ‘seed,’ it is not surprising that the meaning of the phrase shifted towards … the sexual liaisons of an unmarried young male,” whose wild oats might result in quite unwanted children. (A mistake I’ve seen in newspaper and on Internet was the use of “sew” instead of “sow.” “Sewing wild oats” conjures up an amusing picture of a difficult undertaking.)

We still use the term “short shrift,” as in “He came to me for a loan, but I gave him short shrift,” i.e., he didn’t get the money. As the Cambridge Dictionary says, “If you get or are given short shrift by someone, you are treated without sympathy and given little attention.” While most people understand the meaning of this phrase, the key word is archaic. “Shrift” is the past participle of the verb to shrive, which is the giving of a sacramental absolution of sins by a priest, often as death approaches. A “short shrift” was a rushed sacrament of confession given to a condemned prisoner whose appearance at the Pearly Gates was imminent.

“I heard it through the grapevine!” has a very clear meaning. It is supposed to have originated during the Civil War when “vinelike telegraph wires” carried information across the countryside. In any case a vine is a good analogy to a chain of whispers traveling from one person to another. You can never be quite sure of etymologies, though. An acquaintance of mine said he was once visiting a vineyard in Europe, and heard, on the other side of and concealed by the growing grapes, a conversation to which he shouldn’t have been a party, “through the grapevine.”

Have your heard “Bob’s your uncle?” It’s British, antique and colorful. Like many such phrases, different origins have been proposed. The most likely is that one Robert, Lord Salisbury paved the way for his nephew Arthur Balfour to important political positions in England in the late 19th century. So, if you’ve really got it made, “Bob’s your uncle!”

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Jonathan Wells of Newbury welcomes your comments at Jon3sticks@gmail.com.