Every day, you’ll sometimes hear people speaking English use clever, creative phrases in place of standard words or terminology.

These old sayings (or idioms or slang) are often pretty odd sounding, and frequently seem downright weird when you pay attention to them. In the 24th entry in this series, here’s a look at where some of them might have originated.

•Upper hand.

The phrase comes from determining which team bats first in a playground baseball game. 

Opposing team captains would grasp a bat, starting at the bottom, and alternate their hands until reaching the top. The captain holding the bat at the top got the “upper hand” and his team would bat first.


Of course, if someone is having one of these, they’re throwing a fit or a tantrum.

It comes from the American South as a version of the word corruption, as in someone being corrupted by the devil.


A well known term that represents an illegal recording f music, movies, concerts or other productions.

The word stems from bootleggers, the makers of illicit alcohol during the U.S Prohibition era. The singular word had its origins in the practice of smuggling a flask of alcohol in the top of a tall boot.

•At the drop of the hat.

Meaning to do something on the spot or with little forethought, the phrase can be traced to the American West.

The signal to start a duel or fight frequently would be when someone dropped a hat to the ground.

•Pan out.

Of course, if something does this, it proceeds well and finishes successfully.

The saying comes from gold mining, when miners panned for gold in stream beds and would put water and gravel in a shallow pan and swirl it around, making the heavier gold sink to the bottom.

•Can of worms.

We all know that to “open a can of worms” means to cause a multitude of problems in the process of trying to solve one.

The phrase dates to the 1950s when fishermen would buy sealed metal cans of earthworms for bait, and opening the can to get one worm could mean many would crawl out.

•Cold turkey.

As we know, when someone quits something (like an addiction) in this manner, they do it immediately and completely.

Interestingly, it’s one of those phrases that has no clearly documented origin, and tracing it only leads to possibilities, but not answers.

But some historians point toward the satirical United Kingdom magazine, “Judy,” in which an issue in 1877 featured a portion of a man’s fictional diary and an account of his Christmas holiday. The man – who demonstrates a humbug attitude – is invited to stay at his cousin’s home and join her household’s celebrations. During the process, she serves him slices of cold turkey with his pudding and other side dishes. He ultimately arrives home, disgusted at having been treated so badly, and calls for his estate lawyer to chop her out of his will.

His actions spur the phrase “the cold turkey treatment” to circulate around the Western World, and somehow the current version and meaning morphed out of that.


My wife and I often refer to our dog Scotty (the Scottie) with this term when his fur is long and fluffy.

The term originally was used to refer to a disreputable person in the mid-1300s, but appeared in a medieval poem in 1393 describing a demon.

By the late 1500s, its meaning had transformed into the current one of a ragged, scruffy, disheveled person.

The word is thought to have been a combination of the obvious “rag” or “ragged,” with the whimsical ending that in those days meant a poor little thing or creature, long before it came to mean a small cake in the early 1700s.

Will there be a 25th installment in this series?

You bet. The material is almost limitless.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply