, Newburyport, MA


November 11, 2013

An interesting history of some modern sayings


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!”


Jonathan Wells of Newbury welcomes your comments at

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