Whether or not we pay attention to them when we hear them or say them, old sayings, slang words and phrases are no less interesting when we take note of their existence and where they might have originated.

In the 15th installment of this ongoing series (which began in December 2011), here’s a look at several more.

•Lower the boom.

If you’re going to do this, you’re going to come down hard on something, put a stop to it or really let it “have it.”

As is the case with lots of old expressions, this one has nautical roots. It refers to the boom of a sailboat, which is a long spar extending from the mast to secure the base of the sail.

In a changing wind, the boom can swing wildly, leaving sailors at risk of being struck. An old story describes how a sailor had knocked men overboard on purpose when he “lowered the boom” on them.


Obviously, this word is most often associated with airliners being taken over by bad guys.

Like many old sayings, it has multiple possible origins. One of the best stems from the prohibition era in the U.S. when a member of one gang would supposedly approach the driver of a rival gang’s bootlegging truck, smile and say “Hi, Jack!” before sticking a gun in his face procuring both the truck and its alcoholic cargo.

Another possibility comes from the same era, and a newspaper reference to “hi-jacking.” The hyphen indicates a compound word likely derived from the phrase “highway jackrolling,” which – not surprisingly – means theft by a show of force (like using a gun to steal from a bootlegger).


When you “put some English” on something, you give it a special movement or spin designed to gain advantage of some sort.

The phrase may have been launched when an Englishman travelled to the U.S. in the late 1800s and impressed Americans with a demonstration of the effects of hitting billiard balls in specific manners. His name also happened to be English.

A spin-off of the word is the phrase “body English,” which simply means contorting your body in an attempt (certainly vain) to affect the movement of a ball or other object.

•Red cent.

Maybe you’ve heard someone say (or said yourself), “I wouldn’t pay a red cent for that!”

Well, the original U.S. one-cent copper coin was issued in 1792 and minted until 1857. It’s nickname – red cent – came from the copper’s reddish color.

The coin was sometimes simply called a “red.”

•Catbird seat.

Derived from the behavior of the gray catbird – which likes to find a high perches to sit and sing and display – this old saying is often used to describe an enviable position or having the upper hand in dealings between more than on individual or group.

The expression is said to have been first used by legendary Major League Baseball radio announcer Red Barber, who would use it to describe someone with an advantage, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.

The familiar phrase, “sitting pretty,” also came from Barber, who would even use them together, as in, “he’s sitting pretty in the catbird seat.”


Someone who gets this (or these) gets compliments or honor for a performance or action.

Basically, it’s an ancient Greek word meaning almost the same thing: Glory. It entered English slang in the early 1800s when it was adopted by university students and British politicians as an alternative to the noun, “praise.”

•Down to brass tacks.

Commonly recognized as meaning getting down to basics or essentials, or entering the final stages of a project or chore, the phrase’s origin is hard to pinpoint.

But one possibility is it was inspired by the integral nature of actual brass tacks in finishing out furniture and upholstery. It’s known to have first appeared in print in Texas and was widely used in its current manner by the early 1900s.

•Fair shake.

Getting this means someone or something is getting a fair chance or fair treatment.

The term stems from the U.S. in the late 1700s when the non-scientific – but effective – method of shaking whiskey was used to assess its quality.

When the fledgling American government was pondering ways to retire its Revolutionary War debt, taxes were placed on whiskey distilleries, which created an uproar as it threatened family incomes and subsequently forced whiskey production to become largely done illegally.

The quality of “bootleg” whiskey – or more importantly, its alcohol content – was always in question, and an easy way to approximately measure the level of alcohol (and thus the purity of distillation) was to pour some into a bottle and shake it hard for a few seconds. If bubbles lingered, then the alcohol level was low, but if they disappeared immediately, the alcohol content was high and the whiskey was considered good.


I recently had that word come out of my own mouth, and stopped right then to think, “what the heck?”

As we all know, the word is slang and means “jail.” But what we don’t all know is it probably started in the U.S. Old West from cowboys’ mispronunciation of the Mexican Spanish word, “juzgao,” meaning jail, which came from the word  “juzgado,” which means “tribunal” or “court.”

Kudos to any of you who already knew these origins, and may you get a fair shake and stay on the catbird seat and out of the hoosegow as you get down to brass tacks and lower the boom on life and put some English on your destiny without getting hijacked or spending a red cent.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald.

Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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