Since it’s a fact that 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, it never gets old to take a look at where they might come from.

Here’s a handful more of the thousands that exist in the English language.

•Play it by ear.

When someone wants to do this, we know they want to be noncommittal and just see how something goes before jumping on board.

The straight forward original meaning of the term was to play music without sheet music, meaning you either remembered it or improvised it. 

•Top dog.

Now carrying the meaning of being the best or strongest member of a group, the term may have originated in the 1800s when dog fighting was a popular sport.

In 1859, a U.S. newspaper printed a poem by David Barker entitled “The Under Dog in The Fight,” describing the plight of the losing dog. Since it has become synonymous with being a winner, this is probably the most accurate origin.

The phrase might have originally been “tip-top dog,” but as the years passed, “tip” was removed.

•Dog and pony show.

Dating back to the late 1800s, the phrase is recognized for describing when someone is trying to impress someone else with an elaborate showing that doesn’t have much substance or promise behind it.

Originally it was used to refer to small traveling circuses that consisted of just a few performers and generally a dog or pony as the circus animal. These small “dog and pony shows” were held in tiny rural towns where large circuses never passed through. The most famous was Professor Gentry’s Famous Dog & Pony Show, which started in 1886.

•Barrels of oil.

When the first oil wells were drilled, there was no provision for storing the liquid, so water barrels were used. To this day, amounts of oil are referred to in barrels rather than gallons.

•Hot of the press.

An iconic term used with regard to fresh or hot news or information, it can actually be linked to the newspaper industry.

During the printing process, as the paper goes through the rotary printing press, friction causes it to heat up. So if you grab the paper right off the press it’s hot.

In turn, the material is literally hot to the touch.

•Barn burner.

Commonly used in reference to an exciting or hotly contested sporting event, the old saying was first coined as one word, barnburner, to describe a certain type of politician in the mid-1800s. It basically compared them with someone who, when faced with a barn infested with rats, was willing to burn down the barn in order to get rid of the rats.


Obviously, when someone calls “dibs” on something, they’ve laid claim to it as theirs.

The origin is likely an old children’s game called “dibstones,” in which players would claim dibstones by calling out “dibs.”


Even though 35-milimeter film is no longer in significant use, the word footage is still used to describe video recording.

The origin stems from film traditionally being measured in feet and frames in cutting rooms, with 16 frames in a foot, which roughly represented 1 second of silent film.


Well guys, our popular slang moniker apparently comes from a guy named Guy.

It’s Guy Fawkes, of English Gunpowder Plot fame (a failed assassination attempt of King James I on Nov. 5, 1605). His actions led to Guy Fawkes Day, which featured burning effigies of him, called “guys.”

That in turn produced “guy” in the sense of “a person of grotesque appearance,” which later developed in the U.S. into just “a man,” or “a fellow.”

Thanks, Guy.

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


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