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Why We Say




“Oh, don’t pay any attention to him and his boastings. He’s just a stuffed shirt,” Laurie whispered to Ana about their linguistics professor.

For some reason I thought being a stuffed shirt meant being an old fuddy-duddy, someone who insists on doing things exactly and according to the rules with no wavering, to the point of being quite boring. The truth of the matter is:

An actor of the 1899 era, John Gates, was believed to pad his shirts to give himself a more impressive impression, a bit like shoe lifts or padded shoulders, except more applied to the front area to have an admirable physique. So in actuality, a stuffed shirt refers to someone who is pompous, who thinks himself more important than he really is. And those kind of people can be quite boring, when you think about it.


Image result for swan song

“That was her last performance,” the reviewer mentioned in her article of the famous actress. “Performing as Cleopatra was her swan song.”

When I hear the expression “swan song,” I think of it being the last effort of a person, the culminating moment of achievement or something that brings the downfall of a person. Not being terribly sure of its meaning, I’m cautious about how to use this expression.

Apparently, according to thoughts going back to Plato’s time, the swan not being able to sing like other birds would burst into one last song just before dying. In reality, while swans don’t sing, they do make a variety of noises. This is a case of “mything the mark.” Even Shakespeare got it wrong, when he has Portia say in the Merchant of Venice: 

Let music sound while he doth make his choice; then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, fading in music.

Being Shakespeare, we’ll let that one go.

“Even though we don’t agree with some of the decisions of our new boss, it’s best not to swap horses in midstream,” Bart told the group, as they headed out to the parking lot.

This one makes sense, as it would be uncomfortable, awkward, maybe even unsafe to try to get on one horse while on another traversing the river. The few times I have traveled by horseback I think staying in one saddle is hard enough without having to try to switch to another horse and another saddle, let alone while trying to do so in a river.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with this saying. With his wry wit he made a speech during the Civil War that it best not to switch allegiance of presidents by swapping horses midstream. This was alluding to how many people were unhappy with his wartime politics and wanted new leadership.Fortunately, people took his advice and stayed put in their saddles.

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Why We Say: A monthly series that explores a variety of sayings and expression that are common or are interesting, based on the information found in Why We Say by Robert L. Morgan.


Why We Say #26: ‘Tis the Season or here’s to muddying meanings

Between putting our votes in and putting up the mistletoe there are words we banter around that no longer mean what they once meant.

For instance:

Season: from the Middle English “seson”, which originally referred to spring, the time for sowing. “Season” is now extended to four times of year: spring, summer, fall, and winter. I actually live in an area that recognizes a fifth season, one that is situated between the last snows of winter and the downpours of spring. We call it “Mud.”
Transitioning from seasons to secrets:
Secretary: a good secretary can keep a secret, and there were a good many secrets floating this last election season. Maybe the mud season applies to election years as well. Never mind…. However, the word “secretary” is derived  from “secrets” because appropriately enough, a secretary dealt with his or her employer’s private papers, which no doubt contained some clandestine concerns.

Moving from secrets to secret agendas:

Senate: in Roman times the senate was comprised of one hundred men who tended to be on the elder side of life having accrued a wealth of experience and wisdom. It makes sense then that senate is derived from “senis,” not to be confused with “senile,” of course not. 

And that brings us to another politically oriented term:

Shake hands: skaking hands signals agreement, courtesy, acknowledgement, and friendship. Originally it was a precaution, making sure that the other person wasn’t reaching for his sword with his other hand. Wait, wasn’t Caesar in the process of shaking hands with members of his Senate when he was stabbed? So much for trust and knowing what the right hand and the left hand are doing.

This moves us to consider–

Showing one’s true colors: to avoid suspicion pirates would raise up the colors of a friendly nation and once they pulled up alongside a ship they decided to plunder, they would raise their true colors of their pirate ways. Hmm, the political connection seems to be still afloat.

Speaking of evil:

Sinister: it’s only been in recent years that being a lefty is considered somewhat of a notable distinction. Back in the Roman days (difficult leaving our ancient roots), the left side was considered unlucky and even “sinister.” Anything menacing or wrong would be designated as sinister. In fact, the idea of left being wrong (and not right) is found in other languages such as the French’s “gauche” attached to the idea of committing a gaffe or error.

That leads us to:

Snooper: from the Dutch verb “snoopen” referring to the practice of eating sweets without getting caught, so it makes sense to noun this verb into a snooper or snoop. 

This makes me wonder if a sinister senate secretary is willing to show his or her true colors when caught out as a snoop. Watch out if the offer to shake hands is mentioned as as an acknowledgment of the season of goodwill and glad tidings. See–mud still applies. 

Morguefile image

Why We Say #25: re(a)d

With school starting up again, red is an appropriate color for this month.

image: Twitter

Before delving into our feature, here is another word related to school:


Have you ever wanted to be the originator of a word, to be the one Wikipedia can proclaim as the inventor, to be the one who is lauded as the first to start it all? It can be done, at least according to Why We Say…

Apparently, about a hundred or so years ago, a Dublin theatre manager proclaimed he could create a new word and make it popular enough that it would become part of everyday use, and he could accomplish this in 24 hours. He printed Q-U-I-Z on walls all over the city. The meaning of the word: practical joke. Its use then moved towards meaning a question or a series of questions. I think that explains why my students always say, “Is this a joke?” when they find out there is a pop quiz.

Read the Riot Act

More than one student has been read the riot act for bringing home bad grades–usually a result of not doing well on all those pop quizzes. While getting read the riot act today can involve an angry parent scolding a child, King George I of England in 1716 meant it to be something else. It seems King George did not want any disturbances to break out and one way to stop them was to let the people know of the consequences before they acted up. If the riot did occur the penalty would be servitude for life. Whether that was for the law enforcers or the law breakers is a bit hazy.

Red Cross

What would school be without the school nurse? Due to budget cuts, the school nurse is most likely a box attached to wall with medical supplies. That red cross on the box signifies the Red Cross organization. It’s the reverse of the Swiss flag design of a white cross on a red field. The original intent of the Red Cross was to relieve the suffering caused by wartime injuries, the idea being the inspiration of a Swiss man named Jean Henry Dunant in 1862.

Red Sea

Should this question pop up on a quiz you’ll now know the answer: The Red Sea is so named because the water is so clear that a person can see the beds of red coral, which gives the sea the appearance of being red.

Red Letter Day

Getting an “A” on a quiz (especially a tough one that hadn’t been studied for) might cause celebration as a Red Letter Day. Originally a red letter day signified a feast day for Christians marked on the 15th century calendar. A red letter day came to mean a special day or a special event.

Red Tape

When you think of a process that gets slowed down because it’s tied up in red tape, you aren’t too far from the true meaning. Way back in England, government documents were stored in envelopes secured with red tape because string might damage the contents. Why red? Unknown at this press release. If someone could not get access to a document they needed it was due to it being tied up in red tape. A case of the literal moving to the metaphorical.

Seeing Red

If you are seeing red, perhaps due to a bad quiz grade or getting paperwork work mired in red tape, that you are no doubt as mad as a bull being taunted by a matador waving a red cape. Actually, bulls are color blind, it’s the waving of the flag that annoys them. So next time you are really mad, get away from whatever is waving at your face. You’ll feel much better.

Hoping your back to school season is a red letter day that avoids red tape and pop quizzes so you can sea clearly and not see red enough to require Red Cross.


Why We Say #21: In the Know

As the year wraps up it’s time for one more round of Why We Say sayings. Since being in the know is a valued asset, we shall dive into the in and outs of “in”:

In the Bag
A: “Have you got the test figured out?”
B: “Yeah man–it’s in the bag?”

This exchange indicates speaker B has oodles of confidence about his upcoming test, that he can count on scoring well upon it. He may not realize his confidence harkens back to days when they traipsed off to the woods to collect their game. Much could be said about the one that got away, so what was already in the game bag is what really counted

In God We Trust
Glancing at American currency a person will find the motto “In God We Trust.” This is the result of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase acting upon the many requests of people who wanted some expression of faith upon the country’s currency. Beginning in 1864, a bronze two-cent piece had the stamped “In God We Trust.” [Maybe this is where we get the expression of getting our two-cents in]

In the Groove
Though it might be difficult to find an LP to play upon a stereo system these days, back then, the needle had to be aligned with the phonograph groove in order to be played. Getting things lined up just right does allow for being “in the groove”–feeling groovy?


In Hot Water
Why is it being in trouble means “you are in hot water?” Soaking in a hot bath, or hot tub is actually preferred to cold ones. Then again 21st century thinking needs to be set aside for the time being to understand that if one needed to protect the castle in the 16th century, boiling water would be poured down on invaders. Thus, being in hot water means you are no doubt up to no good or about to get in trouble by getting into trouble.

In a Jam
No, this is not a reference to Winnie-the-Pooh and his penchant for getting noses and paws stuck in sweet pots. This is more like a Paul Bunyan reference of sending logs down the river to the mill and having them bulk up in a tangle and needing to straighten things out before they can get going again. All I know is we have named the office copier Bob Marley because it’s always jammin’–and that is not so sweet.

In the Nick of Time
“Has the meeting started yet?”
“Not quite–you’re in the nick of time.”

Being late to meetings is not the best way to make an impression. If you could travel in Mr. Peabody’s Way Back Machine you might earn yourself a notch or a nick in a piece of wood by showing up to the town meeting. Contrary to urban rumor St. Nick is not the patron saint of habitual tardy meeting attenders.

And so ends the 2015 collection of “Why We Say.” I leave you with one for the karaoke fans out there…

In the Limelight
No limes were hurt in the process of this blog. However, once long ago, a ball of lime helped whiten the spotlight while performers stood center stage. While I’m not sure about the technical process of lime and spotlight whitening, I do know that if someone is in the limelight they have all the attention for that time being.


Why We Say #18: A bit about giving

Last month was all about getting, so this month we’ll focus on giving.

1. Giving the slip

Mercutio accused Romeo of giving his homies the slip after the Capulet party. So even in Shakespeare’s time there is mention of needing a fast getaway when the occasion called for one.

In actuality, ships coming into port would anchor by slipping a rope through a hawse pipe, the metal piece attached to the ship’s bow. If the captain needed to leave sooner than anticipated, he simply let loose the rope and slipped away silently to sea. I betcha Cpt Jack Sparrow knows about that one.

Heave ho, maties, give them the slip. iimage: BrassGlass/Morguefile

2. Give a wide berth

Speaking of ships coming and going–if a ship leaving the dock , or berth, knew they might be passing next to a ship being detained for health reasons, as in plague or epidemic concerns, they would give that ship wide passing. In other words, they would steer clear so they wouldn’t get near whatever was being feared.

Aargh, give them scurvy dogs a wide berth. image: BrassGlass/Morguefile

3. Giving the cold shoulder

Oh, we’ve been there, haven’t we–you know the feeling, that uncomfortable twinge of being snubbed, especially when you thought you would be ever so warmly received. Well, today you might just get subtly ignored, but if you lived in medieval France you would end up with cold cuts. That’s right, if you weren’t on the A list and you showed up to the party, instead of that yummy slice of venison, pheasant, swan, or whatever was on the best list of entrees, you would get the cold shoulder slice of lamb or beef. But wait a minute, I gladly purchase lamb and don’t mind it cold. Maybe that explains why I’m oblivious when people ignore me at dinner parties.

Moral: don’t be late or it’s a cold plate image:MaxStraeten/MorgueFile

Until next month… Be careful what you say until you know why you are saying it.

Why We Say #17: Getting it all said and done

What with National Poetry Month and school letting out, and getting ready for my Hamlet trip, I realize I’m remiss in getting out another edition of “Why We Say,” which is a look into the background of those words and phrases that are part of our everyday vernacular.

Why we say: A guidebook to current idioms…

Today’s chapter is all about “getting”:

1. Getting the sack

I’m glad when I go to work everything is pretty much set up for me. I wouldn’t want to lug around desks, books, whiteboards, markers, paper, computers–wow, there’s a lot involved in being a teacher. Although being a trades mechanic around 300 years ago meant I came to work toting my own tools in a sack. If the boss didn’t like my work he’d tell me to get the sack, which meant “Hit the road, Jack.”

2. Getting the third degree

Note: I am getting this down low on the low down about police procedures from this quaint second hand book. Please don’t accuse me of sterotyping, perpetuating urban myths, or promoting wrong ideas. This is a Cyndi Lauper exercise of just wanting to have some fun.

So when someone says, “Did you get the third degree?” you’ll know that it comes from [supposed] police techniques of the first degree being arrested, the second degree getting confined, and then getting reaching the third degree of being roughly questioned. Puts this saying into a different perspective. I’ll be looking for it when watching my next detective show. It guess this goes right along with third degree burn.
3. Getting into a scrape

Who knew deer could be devious? During certain times of the season, deer are known to dig out indentations in the ground to rest in. If someone isn’t watching where he is going he could fall into one of these antler scraped pits. I wouldn’t think so dearly of them deeries after nearly breaking my ankle from the whole hole.

And in summary–a really bad day, back in the day would involve getting the third degree about getting the sack, after getting into a scrape.

Why We Say: #16

This round involves some flash and splash in terms of remberance…

Flash in the Pan
We know the story: a new talent comes on the scene, everyone is appropriately dazzled, and whist and fizzle, the name fades from view. The expression “flash in the pan” comes from 17th century muskets and how the flint sparks ignited the powder in the loading pan. The powder, like flashy talent, gave off a spark, yet had no significance or long-lasting effect.

these guns were fairly flashy in their day image: revwarheart/Morguefile

Flirting is a behavior most associated with women, although I’ve known a few men who can rustle up the attraction factor as well. However, I don’t think too many men would consider waving a fan about to get attention, which is from where our term of “flirting” originates. Women desiring the attention of available men at dances, balls, or other gatherings would practice the fine art of waving or flirting their fans about. Fans are out, but flirting is still in play today. Perhaps words and actions have replaced the fan’s muted motions.

Pennywise (Morguefile) might be suggesting that someone fanning this about would definitely attract attention


These sweet little flowers have a sad story image: Jusben/Morguefile

These are garden favorites of mine. Every year I faithfully sprinkle out seeds and hope for the best. Not as many pop up as I hope, yet once planted they perk up the summer landscape with their multitude of blooms. Now that I’ve discovered their story I appreciate them even more. I’ve added a wee bit more to the snippet I found:

Once upon a time, (like all great German tales start), a dedicated knight decided to surprise his lady-love. Making his way down to the banks of the Danube river he began to pick a bouquet of the blue-star flowers that grew there. So intent was he upon gathering the flowers that he did not notice how close he was to the edge of the riverbank. Alas, the ground gave way and he fell in. Being a fighter and not a swimmer, he found himself being swept away by the river’s current. His lady-love rushed along the riverbank, yet she was not a swimmer either. Before the river claimed the gallant knight he tossed the remaining flowers he held in his hand towards his lady and called out “Vergiss mein nicht” asking her to “forget him not.” It’s said the lady never married and instead of black she wore the gentian blue of the little flower, as her way of always remembering her lost knight.

Next time we’ll look at different ways a person gets burned…

Why We Say: #8 (a backstock of Bs)

Well, Well…

I haven’t run a “Why We Say” since December. Tsk. Not wanting to disappoint I will make up the lost months in a bevy of Bs. Five months equal five reasonings for “Why We Say”–


1. Springtime is April showers and May flowers and baseball!  It is appropriate we begin our first B with Baseball Fan. Back when newspaper ruled the news, there would be great competition for space. Naturally, if a longer word could be exchanged for a shorter one, or if a long one could be condensed, the switch was made.  Charles Haas, apparently is the reason we now refer to sports enthusiasts as “fans.”  He was credited as being the greatest baseball “fanatic,” which became shortened to “fan” once it hit the press pages.  And here I thought “fan” referred to the paper waving needed for those hot days in the stands.


2. “Oh quit beating around the bush, and just tell me what you think!” Have you ever been accused of holding back information? If so, this statement might be flung at you. You might not realize how foxy you’re being by holding back from your audience.  Back in the day, hunters wanting to rout foxes from their hiding spots in the bushes, would send someone to beat the bushes to scare out the tawny evaders.  Not wanting to become some ladies fur stole, the foxes would learn to keep hidden, which meant it took a long time to get a fox to pop out.  The “aha” moment with this phrase: sometimes it takes someone a long time to get to the point of the story.


3. Do you suffer from getting in tight spots? Do you sigh at the getting behind, just when you thought you had it all in order? Do you wish you could be a winner, instead of being a loser?  If you checked “yes” to any of these questions, you will then most certainly relate to the expression “Behind the Eight Ball.” This expression is derived from the pool game of rotation, where each ball is played except the eight ball. If the eight ball blocks your shot, you have basically lost the game.

4. “I would love to be in your shoes.” This one makes sense all on its own.  It’s simple, right?  It simply means we want to trade places.  That’s true and then some.  Let’s go back as far as 1834 in England. At that time children who were to be adopted would step into their new father’s shoes to stress the importance of the new connection and family ties.  “Shoes me, are you my new dad?”



5.  With spring comes summer and with summer comes weddings.  Ooh, I love a summer wedding and I am so disappointed when I don’t get to go to at least one summer nuptial exchange.  I love the chance to actually dress up, mix and mingle with old and new acquaintances, eat, drink, and be merry and best of all I enjoy watching the bride and groom exchange their commitment to one another.  I look forward to the wedding theme and the fashions.  How many bridesmaid? Will the best man be serious? Or will he pull the old “ring, what ring?” routine.  The best man is naturally the groom’s best friend or close relation, and it’s a place of honor.  This custom stems from centuries ago (primarily in Europe) most weddings took place at night (don’t know the reason on that one–research time) and it wasn’t unheard of to have the rival come swooping in an attempt to kidnap the bride. One precaution against this shocking, and irritating practice, was to have the groom’s men stand guard during the service.  The main guard would be the groom’s most trusted or best man. Tuxedos optional with swords?


Next month B on the lookout for some more Bewildering “Why We Says.”  Until next time…

Why We Say: #5

“I tell you, George, my daughter is the cutest little thing.  I come home and she runs up and jumps into my arms. She wraps herself around me, gives me a big smooch and says, ‘Daddy!’ Makes me swell up with sheer happiness. She’s a precious blessing–she is the apple of my eye.”

Image: Morguefile


According to my reference book, sometime around in the 9th century people began to realize apples were fairly tasty  and  valued them.  Eyes, being valued, somehow drew the same worth as apples, and so, when something was valued it became the “apple of the eye.”


We have all kinds of expressions relaying our appreciation for things, such as”You’re the best!” “You’re one in a million!” Being the apple of someone’s eye? I guess that’s right up there with the “bees knees.”


My Thoughts

The book offers a really weak explanation. Apples have been a loooong time, and seeing as how they are fairly inexpensive and easy to obtain I’m having a tough time grasping that eyes and apples are on the same scale of value. I definitely think eyes are more precious than a Golden Delicous or even a Honey Crisp. However, I do see the connection between apples and eyes in that the pupil looks like an apple in shape.  I associate apples with knowledge (ahem, Eve) and seeing someone as being special means you have learned their value.

There must be a better explanation out there?  Anyone?


Why We Say: #2

Title page of Three Hundred Aesop's Fables

Title page of Three Hundred Aesop’s Fables (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing on with what could be an enlivening series of posts is #2: “Adding Insult to Injury”

This expression is traced back to Aesop, the storyteller who attached morals onto his flash fiction parables.

Apparently a man who possessed hair deficit disorder swatted at a fly and in doing so missed the fly and smacked himself in the head.  Not only did the fly get away (the insult), but the man got a lump on his noggin for his efforts (the injury).

Today, when someone says or does something that hurts another person, either verbally or physically, and then does something that furthers this problem, such as not apologizing for the initial incident, or creates another problem, that person is said to add insult to the injury.

My Thoughts:
Did it really matter that the guy in Aesop’s story was bald to begin with? Was that the insult–that not only did the guy have no hair, now he had a lump for everyone to see.




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