Phrase Origins II

Here are some more proffered origins to common sayings.

Get your dander up
The phrase has Dutch origins where 'op donderen' means to burst into a sudden rage. This, in turn, comes from Donder=Thunder.

Low man on the totem pole

American tribes carved symbols, one on top of the other, into tall poles of wood. The symbols, called totems, are often human faces or figures, and the pole is called a totem pole. Although "lowest" means "least" in phrases like "lowest pay" and "lowest score", the lowest face on the totem pole is not the least important. The person who created this idiom must have thought so by mistake... few people realize the error when they use this popular saying.

Son of a gun

In the past, it was one of contempt and derision derived from the fact that it described a special type of illegitimate child. In the old days, civilian women were allowed to live on naval ships; many became pregnant and had their child on board, usually near the midship gun behind a canvas screen. If the father was unknown, then the male child was recorded in the ship's log as a "son of a gun".

Cut to the chase

"Chase" refers to the obligatory scene that is the exciting climax of many action films. Someone watching an action movie with a slow build-up might be wishing the movie would literally "cut to the chase". A movie executive screening a film that appears to less than tremendous might instruct the projectionist to advance the film to the chase scene such that a quick determination could be made regarding the movie's prospects.

By George

"By George" is the modern version of the old battle cry of English soldiers, most well known in Shakespeare's Henry V where the King shouts: "for Harry, England, and St George!"

Lucky stiff
"Stiff" is defined as an ordinary person, an average Joe, even a failure or flop. A "lucky stiff" then is an average Joe who got lucky. The suggestion here is that the person was undeserving and unworthy, just lucky.

Hit the spot
The colloquial phrase "that hit the spot" originates from 1868 and means it was exactly what you were looking for, as in an arrow hitting a target, exactly spot on.

Spin a yarn
In the old days, women used to spin yarn on spinning wheels. They frequently did this in groups and, to pass the time, they often told each other stories. In time the words came to mean the production of the stories themselves.

In the nick of time
Even into the 18th century, some businessmen kept track of transactions and time by carving notches (nicks) on a "tally stick." Someone arriving just before the next nick was carved would arrive in time to save the next day's interest - in the nick of time.


(ala Wikipedia) Humbug is an old term meaning hoax or jest. While the term was first described in 1751 as student slang, its etymology is unknown. Its present meaning as an exclamation is closer to 'nonsense' or 'gibberish', while as a noun, a humbug refers to a fraud or impostor, implying an element of unjustified publicity and spectacle. The term is also used for certain types of candy.

In modern usage, the word is most associated with Ebenezer Scrooge, a character created by Charles Dickens. His famous reference to Christmas, "Bah! Humbug!", declaring Christmas to be a fraud, is commonly used in stage and television versions of A Christmas Carol.

P. T. Barnum was a master of humbug, creating public sensations and fascination with his masterful sense of publicity. Many of his promoted exhibitions were obvious fakes, but the paying public enjoyed viewing them, either to scoff or for the wonder of them.

Another use of the word was by John Collins Warren, a Harvard Medical School professor who worked at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Warren performed the first public operation with the use of ether anesthesia, administered by William Thomas Green Morton, a dentist. To the stunned audience at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Warren declared, "Gentlemen, this is no humbug!"

I'll give you the … to boot
The saying has nothing to do with footwear, but rather Anglo Saxon English where the word "Bot" meant "advantage" or "profit". "To boot" survives in modern English only in this single phrase, other uses having died out in the 19th century.

On the web

The Lord's prayer

To see how language has changed, there are some videos with a recital of the Lord's prayer in old languages:

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