|At the very bottom of this article, in bold, is a reference to wife beating that suggests the Quran is not unique.|
Tucson, Arizona Tuesday, 9 October 2001
Where did that come from?
We use many expressions that are colorful, rooted in folklore and taken for granted
For example . . .
By Gene Armstrong
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Maybe, for a second, you might have considered why your little- brother yelled "Uncle!" when you so unmercifully twisted his arm.
Then, in spite of the fact that you knew "Uncle!" meant "I give up," you shrugged and continued twisting.
Could also be you've wondered why that blond kid in school was called a "towhead."
Or why left-handed pitchers, and often boxers, are known as "southpaws."
So imbedded are such folk sayings and colorful expressions in our lexicon that we often take them for granted.
But etymology, or the origins and development of words and phrases, is a perennial passion of word freaks everywhere.
Good thing, too, for those of us without the time to wonder why "long in the tooth" means old or whence came "rule of thumb."
The recently published "Common Phrases and Where They Come From," by Myron Korach and John B. Mordock (The Lyons Press, $19.95), joins a growing list of books on etymology.
The granddaddy of these is the "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins," by William and Mary Morris.
English is "the richest language because it has borrowed freely from virtually every other language spoken on the face of the earth," the Morrises wrote in the 1962 edition of the "Morris Dictionary."
"You can't stop the coining of new phrases. New words are going to come no matter what you do," said Eisner, who specialized in teaching the work of
Popular pastimes, sports in particular, often give us our colloquial expressions, Eisner said.
If you have a "Chinaman's chance" - a popular turn of phrase during the early part of the 20th century - you've got practically no chance at all.
But the phrase does not have the ethnic origins we might guess, Eisner said.
"It was said that a boxer who would go to pieces when he got hit was a china man. Like broken china. It was like saying he had a glass jaw."
So a Chinaman was a fragile boxer - bound to lose.
Among the reasons for creating such phrases is "the attraction to the idea of the metaphor and simile," said Dave Wilton, creator and editor of the Internet site Wilton's Word & Phrase Origins.
"Some sayings are poetical, or some are rhetorical, many of them are literary allusions," Wilton said.
Speaking of literature, many otherwise archaic phrases have been retained in contemporary usage thanks to the poems and plays of William Shakespeare.
The phrase "hoist by his own petard" comes from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Wilton said.
A petard was a medieval explosive device, he said.
Setting a petard, such as affixing it to the gates of a castle, was a dangerous job.
If the device went off early, the warrior in charge of placing it might get caught in the blast and hoisted (or lifted) off the ground.
After Shakespeare finished with it, the phrase meant to be foiled by one's own plotting, Wilton said.
Sometimes we falsely have attributed origins to phrases.
"The whole nine yards" doesn't refer to football or to the amount of cloth needed to make a traditional Scottish quilt, as some people might assume.
But the origin on which many agree - that the average cement mixer carries a total of 9 cubic yards of material - may not be your final answer, either.
"That is simply one of the common explanations for it," Wilton said. "The truth is we have no idea where it comes from. All we know is that it's an American phrase that arose in the mid-1960s."
Also perpetually in question is the origin of "rule of thumb," which means a basic guess or guideline.
Some word buffs claim it was a crude measurement (the end joint of an adult male's thumb roughly equaling an inch), or the method by which a brewer tested the temperature of beer in a vat with his thumb.
Another explanation, often noted in women's studies classes, states that early English Common Law allowed a man to beat his wife, provided the stick with which he struck her was no thicker than his thumb.
Some things are better left in the past.