OFF THE CUFF

As I’ve said 19 times in the past, I always find exploring the vast world of old sayings and idioms that are so prevalent in the English language fascinating.

There are just so many odd words and phrases that we take for granted in every day conversation, despite their often strange sounds or appearances. Here’s another glance at where some of them might have come from.

•A shot of whiskey.

In the old west, a .45 caliber cartridge for a six-shooter cost 12 cents, and so did a glass of whiskey. If a cowboy was low on cash, he might give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink.

•Buy the farm.

We all know that if you do this, you have taken your last breath.

During World War I, soldiers were given life insurance policies worth $5,000. That was about the price of an average farm, so if you died you basically “bought the farm” for your survivors. 

•Riff raff.

Of course, when there’s riff raff in the area, there are less-than-desirable people about.

Years ago, the Mississippi River was the main route for traveling from north to south in the U.S. Midwest. Riverboats carried passengers and freight, but due to the expense involved, most people used rafts. Every type of boat had the right of way over rafts, which were considered cheap. The steering oar on the rafts was called a “riff,” which became half of the familiar phrase.

•Cobweb.

For years, I wondered where this word came from. Well, it turns out that an old English word for “spider” was “cob.”

•Make it snappy.

Clearly, when we want someone to do something this way, we want them to do it in a hurry.

In the early 1800s, the word “snappy” was used to mean quick or energetic.

•Staterooms.

In the 1800s, traveling by steamboat was considered the height of comfort. Passenger cabins on the boats were not numbered, but were instead named after states.

To this day, cabins on ships are called staterooms.

•Sleep tight.

My mom and dad would often say this to me when I was a kid, and it has an interesting origin.

Early beds were made with a wooden frame, and ropes were tied to the frame in a crisscross pattern. A straw mattress was then put on top of the ropes.

Over time, the ropes would stretch, causing the bed to sag. Eventually, the ropes would need to be tightened to get a good night’s sleep. 

•Showboat. 

In sports and other areas of life, “showboating” is know to mean showing off in an unnecessary manner.

Many years ago, floating theaters built on barges would be pushed by a steamboat along the Mississippi River to put on shows at small towns. Unlike the boat shown in the movie “Showboat,” these barges didn’t have an engine, but they were certainly gaudy and attention-grabbing. 

•Barge in.

We’re all familiar with the concept that barging in means showing up without invitation or maybe in a pushy sort of way.

Heavy freight was moved along the Mississippi River in large barges pushed by steamboats. These were hard to control and would sometimes swing into piers or other boats, and people would say they “barged in.”

•Hogwash.

You might hear someone say this word when they don’t believe something or think something is silly. 

Back in the day, big river steamboats carried both people and animals. Since pigs smelled so bad, they would be washed before being put on board. The mud and other filth that was washed off was considered useless “hogwash.”

•The third time’s the charm

Whether true or not, there’s a tendency for people to think that if a person tries to do something and fails twice, success comes on the third attempt.

The phrase became popular in the early 1800s, but its origin is probably ancient, as things that come in sets of three have often been associated with good luck due to their similarity with the “Holy Trinity” of Christianity.

•Curfew.

We know that when this time comes, it’s time to come inside or go to bed.

The word comes from the French phrase, “couvre-feu,” meaning “cover the fire.” It was used to describe the time of blowing out all lamps and candles.

It was later adopted into Middle English as “curfeu,” which later became the modern version.

In the early American colonies, homes had no real fireplaces, so a fire was often built in the center of the room. To make sure a fire didn’t get out of control during the night, it was required that all fires would be covered with a clay pot called-a “curfew” at an agreed upon time.

I’d like to thank a woman I know for providing many of the words and phrases in this list. I’d also like to say I would love to receive more from anyone who wants to contribute. 

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

Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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