No matter where you are – at work, in a restaurant, in a store or even at home – you’ll here old sayings and adages used with relative frequency.

The fact that they’re a common part of life is without question, but where they originate is seldom known. Here’s a look at some of them and where they might have come from. 

•Chock full.

When a can, box, suitcase or any other object that contains other objects or material is packed to its limit, what in tarnation does “chock” have to do with that?

Well, like many other old sayings we take for granted, this one can be traced back centuries (likely in the early 1400s) when the word, “chokkeful” was used to describe something being crammed full. We’ve simply turned it into a two-word phrase spoken phonetically.

•Jack of all trades.

As we know, when someone is good at a lot of different types of tasks or jobs, they might be described this way.

But who is Jack, and why does he get all the credit? Well, the term’s origin dates all the way back to the 1300s when the term “Jack” was used as a generic name for any “general representative of the common people.”

So I guess someone who’s a Jack of all trades generally represents the ability to do a lot of stuff for the common folk.


I’ve always found this to be on odd word. Of course, it is often used in a derogatory fashion to describe someone who is (as the dictionary says) “contemptibly small or unimportant.” And actually, I’ve also heard it used to playfully describe a small person, like a young child, and I’ve even called my own small dog a “pipsqueak.”

But try as you might, you probably won’t come up with a definitive origin for the word.

Possibilities include a small German artillery shell of World War I that supposedly made a “squeaking” sound before the “pip” of its explosion. 

But most likely, pipsqueak is what language experts call an “echoic” word, or a word that imitates a sound. “Squeak” itself is an echoic word, as anyone who has heard someone wearing squeaky shoes walk by would confirm. And “pip” was for centuries used in reference to very small things.

•Drives me up the wall.

A person might feel this way when something or someone makes them mad, irritated or frustrated.

Unfortunately, there again doesn’t seem to be an absolute beginning to the phrase, but it represents someone desperately trying to escape said thing or person by climbing the nearest wall.

•Driving me nuts.

Another familiar phrase with a meaning similar to the one above.

The origin of this one, however, is a bit easier to nail down.

By the late 1800s, the word “nut” had become popular slang to mean a person’s head, and then was used to describe when someone who was not acting right in the head.

An early example of its use in writing comes newsprint in 1884 when an 18-year-old boy asked Ann Landers for advice, indicating “my dad is driving me nuts!”

•You bet.

I said this two-word phrase this morning when someone asked me to do something and I was agreeing to do it. I also said it the other day when someone thanked me for doing something and I was acknowledging their gratitude.

I’m not alone in this; we all know how common the phrase is and what is means when we hear it or say it (along with its partner, “you betcha”).

But why would anyone bring up gambling in such situations?

Because the phrase apparently originated from a Native American custom when young people betting on things to prove themselves was common – and the answer to a bet would always be “yes.” Why? Because answering “no” made it hard to be considered a respectable member of their group.

•As happy as a clam.

How could anyone possibly know if a clam is happy or not?

It doesn’t matter, but in the northeastern U.S. in the early 1800s, clams were said to look like they’re smiling when they’re open.

•Johnny on the spot.

Who is Johnny, and why do we recognize him as a benchmark for promptness, diligence and efficiency?

Well, not surprisingly, Johnny isn’t a specific person at all.

The phrase dates back to 1896 and was the subject of an article in the New York Sun titled “Johnny on the Spot: A New Phrase Which Has Become Popular in New York.”

According to the writer, the phrase was derived from a slightly longer version, “Johnny is always on the spot when wanted,” with Johnny being used in a general sense, like John Doe. The author provided some detail about good ol’ Johnny, who was described as “a man or youth who may be relied upon to be at a certain stated place when wanted; an individual who is prompt and farseeing, alive to his own interests and keenly sensible of means for promoting his own advantage.”

•As fast as greased lightning.

Certainly, if something is this, it’s not just fast, it’s faster than fast.

Lightning has been considered a very speedy for centuries, and grease is known for its lubrication abilities, even in some cases making something fast even faster.

The two words became a phrase in the early 1800s and have represented big-time speed ever since.

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


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