For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the hundreds upon hundreds of rather mysterious old sayings that are a part of every day English language.
When analyzed literally, many don’t make much (if any) sense. But most never receive such scrutiny and are simply carried on through the generations.
In many cases, time has caused old sayings to lose their original form, and in others, to take on entirely different meaning. But whether they’ve withstood the pressure of change, or have been altered over time, finding out where old sayings come from always sheds very interesting light on them.
I chose a handful of familiar favorites and did a little research. Here’s what I found.
•God (or Lord) willing and the creek don’t rise.
During the late 1700s, politician and Indian diplomat Benjamin Hawkins was working in the southeastern U.S. and was requested by the president to come to Washington, D.C.
Hawkins’ responded by writing that he would do so, “God willing and the Creeks don’t rise.” He was referring to the Creek Indians.
Over time the saying has morphed into the one we are now familiar with, in which the word “creek” has been substituted for “Creeks” and is associated with a swollen stream of water.
•Tough row to hoe.
Most often mistakenly stated a “tough road to hoe,” the phrase means to have a daunting task to perform, and refers to hoeing rows on a farm.
A tough row to hoe would in a literal sense be one full of rocks and roots, which in a figurative sense would be a tough problem to face.
The origin of the expression dates back to 1834, from a passage in the book “Tour to the North and Down East,” by frontiersman Davy Crockett, who wrote, “I know it was a hard row to hoe.”
Nowadays, you might hear a TV sportscaster say a team has a “tough road ahead.”
•Balls to the wall.
The familiar old saying that means to push to the limit, or go all out, is not a reference to male anatomy, but an expression from the world of aviation. On an airplane, the handles controlling the throttle and fuel mixture are often topped with ball-shaped grips, which are not surprisingly referred to by pilots as “balls.”
Pushing the balls forward – toward the “wall” of the cockpit – is to apply full throttle and reach the highest possible speed.
Most present-day sports fans are familiar with this phrase and its use to describe a tournament in which each entrant (whether team or individual) plays all other entrants.
But its origin is vastly removed from athletics, and has nothing to do with a red-breasted bird.
The word “robin” in the saying is a corruption of the French word “ruban,” which means “ribbon.”
In 17th and 18th century France, the average peasant had plenty to complain about, and they often did so by petitioning the king. But that wasn’t a particularly wise move for a while, because his usual reaction was to seize the first two or three people who signed the petition and have them beheaded.
Wishing to keep their heads about them, but determined to petition for justice, peasants began signing their names on petitions in a circle, like a ribbon. That eliminated any order to the signatures, and if there were hundreds on a given petition, it was impractical for the king to punish all signers.
•Pleased as Punch.
An old saying that’s generally recognized as meaning very pleased, it comes from the traditional, popular puppet show with roots in 16th century Italy known as “Punch and Judy,” featuring Mr. Punch and his wife Judy. Mr. Punch, who wears a brightly colored jester’s outfit, is typically portrayed as a character possessing gleeful self-satisfaction, hence the modern phrase.
In the 18th century when many men wore wigs, the most important men wore the biggest wigs. Important people are still called “big wigs” today.
•Bone up on.
Commonly known to mean studying or learning about something, the phrase was originally slang used by American students in the 1800s.
A publishing firm owned by Henry Bohn produced Bohn’s Classical Library, a series of study aids that translated Greek and Latin classics to English and were widely used by students cramming for exams. The expression to “Bohn up” eventually became to “bone up.”
•Flash in the pan.
Musical artists who become “one hit wonders,” or athletes who have a great moment but not a great career, sometimes end up wearing this label.
It originates from firearms jargon. For hundreds of years, muzzle-loaded rifles called muskets were designed to shoot with help from a priming pan filled with gunpowder. When flint hit steel, the powder in the pan would ignite, which then ignited the main charge of gunpowder and fired the musket ball. When the powder in the pan failed to light the main charge, all that took place was a “flash in the pan.”
Signifying a final performance, this saying comes from an ancient belief – which has no foundation in fact – that the only time a swan sings in its entire life is just before it dies.
The phrase was first recorded in the 6th century B.C. (Aesop), and is also found in Latin literature and in English beginning in the 14th century.
So there you have it.
A bit of somewhat interesting trivia to add to your relatively useless information file.
Realistically, it doesn’t matter where old sayings come from, and it would take a month of Sundays to even scratch the surface of finding out. All that matters is that a person understands what is being said when someone else pulls the old saying card.
And they usually do, because most people are “on the ball” when it comes to old sayings (there are at least three possibilities as to where that one came from; look it up if you feel led).
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: email@example.com.