January 27, 2020
"Goody, goody gumdrops!"
This has long been a children’s exclamation of glee. It started in America. Goody, goody, then spelled a bit differently, without ‘gumdrops’ goes back to about 1760, when it was used in the very first American ballad opera titled The Disappointment, or The Force of Credulity by Samuel Alder under the pseudonym Andrew Barton, Act II, Scene iii:
“Oh! goodee, goodee, oh! we shall see presently.”
In spite of claims by two popular phrase origin sources that earliest known use was in a November, 1936 American comic strip, the expression was used in the Thirttenth Annual Report of Secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture, published in 1887, on page 88:
“The farmer’s old rubber hoots of this year may come back next in the shape of ju-jube paste, or “goody, goody gum drops, ten cents a pound.’ And you will find them on sale at fairs everywhere.”
"In a jiffy"
Though there is a reference a bit earlier for ‘in a jig,’ the first verifiable citation of this expression comes in Francis Grose’s Classic Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1796:
“It will be done in a jiffy: it will be done in a short space of time, in an instant.”
Origin is uncertain, but The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology speculates that it may have been, ‘spontaneously coined’ by Raspe, a German librarian, writer and scientist. The earliest verifiable citation outside of a dictionary comes in a poem titled ‘To Freshcodina’ published in The Spirit of Journals for 1800 by Stephen Jones printed in London in 1801:
“In vain the fun with gracious bounty pour
His warm irraditions on my toil;
Ripens my various vegetable stores,
And in a jiffy makes them fit to boil”
"Killroy was here"
This is an American pop-culture expression which became popular during World War II, used often in fraffiti. The words, usually accompanied with a sketch of a bald-headed man with a long nose peering over a fence, started appearing on walls where American GIs had been. It was reminiscent of the World War I Australian doodle, ‘Foo was here’. In the U.K. ‘Mr. Chad’ was the icon which was used. The ‘Kilroy’ version became a national joke, and remained popular into the 1950s. The actual origin is debated, but it is widely believed to have been originated by James J. Kilroy who used the phrase when checking ships in Fore River Shipyard in Massachusetts to mark rivets he had inspected during World War II. The WWII Memorial in Washington, DC sports an engraving of the Kilroy head and graffiti.
January 20, 2020
"Danger and delight grow on one stalk"
This proverb is listed as both Scottish and English in various references, so it is certainly known in all of the U.K. It is a reminder for the quick to jump that some will lead a person into danger. It is likely much older, but it is first cited in The rudiments of English grammar and analysis by Ernest Adams, 1871, in Exercise 27 on page 73, where it is expanded:
“Danger and Delight grow both upon one stalk; the Rose and the Canker in one bud.”
"According to Hoyle"
This an old expression meaning in agreement with the highest authority, in accord with a strict set of rules. English banister and writer, Edmond Hoyle (1672-1769) was the author of several works on card games. His writings remain to this day the final authority on any disputes on the rules of all games of cards. The phrase was coined because of his authoritative status. The earliest known citation is from The Town and Country Magazine, Volume 18, 1786:
“His noble friends, who had adulated him for his great judgment and skill at play, and that he played every card according to Hoyle, nay that he frequently made improvements on him, appeared in their true light.”
"Paper over the cracks"
Derived from the old practice of pasting paper over cracks in building to cover up holes and keep cold out, this primarily British idiom means to attempt to hide problems, particularly in regard to differences of opinion between two parties, in order to make a situation seem better than it actually is. It is an English translation of a German phrase used as early as the mid-19th century. The earliest known citation is from a letter by German diplomat, Minister-President of Prussia, Otto von Bismark, in 1865, one year before the Austro-Prussian War began, in which he declared:
“We have papered over the cracks.”
January 14, 2020
"On the up and up"
This odd expression’s origins are a bit fuzzy, but it came into use in the early 20th century. It is believed to have come from betting on horse races, and means open and honest, legitimate or forthright. The earliest known citation is from the American pulp-fiction Munsey’s Magazine, Volume 85, 1925, page 59:
“That much of it’s on the up and up; and this is what we add to it – we tell everybody that you’re in the ring to earn enough money to search for your parents, and find out who they are, and if they’re alive or not.”
"Some people are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them"
This proverbial axiom comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene V, and is found in the words of Malvolio in an answer to Fabian.
“It falls into thy hand, resolve in my stars I am above thee, but be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em. Thy Fates upon thy hands. Let thy blood and spirit embrace them.”
"Zero in on something"
There are various theories as to the origin of this term; however, the most accurate is from aiming a rifle at target and setting the sights on the center of the rifle’s crosshairs, where there is a small circle. Barnhart’s Concise Dictionary of Etymology, 1995, states that ‘zero in’ was first used for setting an instrument to the zero point to take aim at a target in 1913. Etymology Online dates this at 1909. Both sources further state that ‘zero in on’ was first attested in 1944. As a metaphor it means to give all of one’s attention to a particular person or subject.
January 6, 2020
"Mind your p's and q's"
Various explanations have been given through the years about this expression; including being cautious when drinking alcoholic beverages to distinguish pints from quarts, but the most logical one is that of the printer’s apprentice when learning to set type. The lower case p and q were so similar, that the printer would warn the novice in the trade to watch to not confuse them. Hence, ‘mind your p’s and q’s’ became synonymous with behaving, not becoming confused and getting one’s facts straight.
"Six of one, half a dozen of the other"
The coining of this phrase was likely in a book titled The Comic Latin Grammar, Second Edition, printed in 1840. Then it was used as the title of a story in Popular Science, April, 1883, in an article titled ‘The Legal Status of Servant-Girls’ the following appeared:
“In other words, the legal and illegal ways of settling for the damaged or lost articles end in similar results. ‘It is six of one and half a dozen of the other.’ As a matter of practice and advisability, the illegal method of deduction, although it overrides the servant’s rights, is better for her, as it saves her the expense of a lawsuit merely for a principle.”
The phrase gained great popularity thereafter as meaning that two choices made little or no difference.
"As fine as frog hair"
This Americanism means someone feels fantastic! We find a citation of it back as far as 1865 in C. Davis’s Diary:
“I have a better flow of spirits this morning, and, in fact, feel as fine as frog’s hair, as Potso used to say.”
Note he says ‘Potso used to say,’ indicating that the phrase had already been round awhile. Obviously, frogs are hairless, and this simile points to the fact that someone feels so fine that there is no feeling quite like it.