Where old sayings come from, part 13

Going a day without hearing an old saying, idiom or slang term is pretty hard, because the English language is full of them and we Americans love them.

But we don’t typically know (or even consider) where the countless phrases and words came from that make up our vast collection of the stuff. Here’s a look at where a handful of common examples might have originated.

• Charley horse

I used to get these now and then during my basketball playing days when I would unwittingly take an opposing player’s knee to my thigh.

While the origins of the phrase are not clear, it does seem to have a connection with baseball in the late 1800s, and apparently showed up in multiple sports-related publications. I do like a couple of the possibilities from that angle:

–A lame horse named Charley pulled the infield roller in the Chicago White Sox ballpark.

–A pitcher named Charley Radbourne was nicknamed “Old Hoss.” He got cramp during a baseball game in the 1880s.

Then again, the phrase could go back to policemen in 17th century England who were sometimes called “Charleys.” The ample amount of walking their jobs required gave them aching legs.

I was so hoping there would be a definitive origin for this one. It’s just such a weird way to describe a leg pain.

• Shindig

If you’ve ever attended one of these, you were probably enjoying what could be called a party, probably hearing music (and maybe dancing) and generally having fun.

The term became familiar in the U.S. in the 1870s, and probably came from “shindy,” a word from earlier in the same century that likely came from “shinty,” a 1700s term with similar meaning.

The “shin” in every version appears to come from the body part on our lower legs, and likely has some relation to dancing (sort of awkwardly) and perhaps even sports and subsequent injury (maybe due to foul play).

• Swanky

Undoubtedly, we’re all aware that if something is swanky, it’s pretty fancy, elegant and likely not ugly.

The word “swank” was apparently coined in England in the early 1800s to mean, “to strut or behave ostentatiously.” Swank might have been an offshoot of the German word, “swanken,” dating back to the 1500s with similar meaning.

By the early 20th century, swank was a popular word for describing that which was classy or stylish, and adding a “y” at the end was only natural.

• Dot your i’s and cross your t’s

Certainly recognizable as doing something meticulously and carefully (so as to do it right), a shortened version of the phrase showed up in an article in a magazine in the mid-1800s.

• Firing on all cylinders

Regularly misspoken as “clicking on all cylinders” or “hitting on all cylinders,” the phrase clearly represents someone or something operating, executing or basically doing something well. It’s a reference to an internal combustion engine having all its cylinders working properly and providing maximum power and performance.

I searched at length and found no information about exactly when or how the phrase came into being, but I guess it’s pretty obvious why.

• On the dot

When someone is punctual or arrives on time somewhere, that spur someone to use this phrase by saying something like the other person got there “at noon on the dot.”

Indeed, it’s a timely expression, as it’s likely a reference to the minute hand of the clock being exactly over the dot marking a given minute on the dial.

• Roger (or Roger that)

Back when messages were primarily sent by telegraph (using Morse code), the letter “R” was an abbreviation for conveying that a message was received.

Radio communications has for many years included a “spelling alphabet” (or “phoenetic alphabet”) in which words are used to represent letters to lessen confusion between similar sounding letters. “Roger” was for a long time used as the word for the letter “R.”

In military and aviation circles, the word was also used to convey that a message was fully received (although not necessarily agreed with).

As time went by, “romeo” replaced roger in representing the letter “R,” but roger remained as a term meaning “received.”

• Simolians (or semolians)

A slang term for money, it probably stems from England and France centuries ago.

In England in the early 1700s, a small silver coin known as sixpence was often called a “simon,” a term that likely originated from Thomas Simon, a well-known engraver at the London Mint who designed coins (including the sixpence).

Meanwhile, French gold coins were called Napoleons. Combine simon and Napoleon and you have your basic simoleon.

• Moolah

Another slang term for money, it can be traced back to gambling and gamblers in the U.S. in the 1930s. Alas, its origins are once again, sketchy, but some viable possibilities exist:

–It could be derived from the old French term, “le Moulin,” meaning “the mill,” and usually referring to factory mills as a source of wealth.

–Moolah is apparently the word for money in the small south Pacific island nation of Fiji.

–The author of a book about “How the Irish Invented Slang,” matches the word to the Irish phrase “moll oir,” meaning “pile of gold.”

I guess there’s not enough moolah in the world to come up with the “real” answer.

• Fired up

If you’re this way, you’re obviously feeling highly emotional, passionate, enthusiastic or angry about something.

The term dates back to the early 1800s when it literally referred to starting a ire in a furnace or boiler. Its figurative use apparently got going in the late 1800s.

• Get out of Dodge

When you want to get away from somewhere, you might find yourself saying this.

It pretty much got rolling as a familiar phrase used in the ultra-popular 1960s and 70s old west TV show “Gunsmoke,” where unsavory folks in Dodge City, Kan., were sometimes commanded to “get the h-e-double-toothpicks out of Dodge.”

The phrase took on its current meaning in the 1960s and 70s when teenagers began to use it the way it’s still used today.

So, no, it has nothing to do with Rams or grabbing life by the horns.

I’m pretty fired up about getting out of Dodge for a spell, so I think I’ll put on something swanky, grab some moolah and head for a shindig. Roger that.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. His columns are posted online at www.houstonherald.com. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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