Whether it’s interesting or not, a waste of time or not, or actually has some amount of value, I always enjoy exploring the origins of the countless old sayings and expressions that are such an integral part of the English language.

Here is another bunch to ponder.

Under the weather.

Well known as meaning feeling ill, the expression is one of dozens upon dozens with a nautical background.

Back when ships sailed the seas and the water became rough, crewmen and travelers would go below deck and into their cabins to ride out the storm and hopefully avoid becoming seasick.

In turn, they literally retreated to a location “under the weather.”

•Back to the wall.

The phrase (and a similar version, “back against the wall”) has a military origin.

In a literal sense, backing up to a wall can prevent an attack from the rear, but could also prevent further retreat. The term has been used since the 16th century, but became famous near the end of World War I when General Douglas Haig of Great Britain told his troops, “Every position must be held to the last man, with our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.”


We all know what this term means, and I’ve come across multiple ways it may have originated.

My favorite indicates that hundreds of years ago in England, a man of stature would tell a subordinate to go to a local pub and sip on a beer or two while listening to conversation around him, and then return and report on what was overheard.

In other words, “go sip” and listen. Over time, the term took on a meaning related to the conversation rather than the reporting.

•Bring home the bacon.

In England in the 1100s, a local Lord and his wife dressed themselves as common folk and asked a church leader, or Prior, for a blessing for not arguing after a year of being married. Impressed by their devotion, the Prior gave them a side of bacon, or a “flitch.”

After revealing his true identity, the Lord gave land to the Prior’s monastery on the condition that flitches be awarded to couples who proved they were similarly devoted.

A regular contest was started with contestants coming from far and wide, and the winners would bring home the bacon.

•Holding a wake.

Many years ago when cups made of lead were used to drink ale or whisky, the combination would sometimes knock the drinkers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. 

They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up.

•Beck and call.

As we know, some men are subject to this with regard to a woman, and vice-versa.

“Beck” is simply an obsolete shortening of the word “beckon” dating back to England in the 1100s to 1400s.

It referred to a silent nod of the head or a hand signal used by aristocrats to summon servants. If a given servant didn’t acknowledge the “beck,” they were then given an audible call.


A term that appeared in English in the 16th century, it was a derogatory name the British used in reference to the Dutch, whom they portrayed as small, comic and tubby. The word is likely derived from either the Dutch “boomken” (meaning “little tree”) or “bommekijn” (meaning “little barrel”).

Obviously, a country version of this might also be called a hillbilly or hick.


A slang term that refers to someone who is unsophisticated or rough around the edges, it may have come from President Andrew Jackson’s nickname “Old Hickory.”

Jackson was one of the first U.S. presidents to come from rural, low income roots, and people who harvested, processed or sold hickory products (like hickory flour) were referred to as “hicks.”


It’s well known that to have this many of something is to have lots of them.

While there’s no definitive way to determine the term’s origin, it first appeared in American slang in the mid-1800s and could be a shortened form of “scadoodles,” which was also slang during the same period meaning “a lot.” 

Scadoodles is an elaboration on the word “scad” (more commonly known in its plural version, “scads”), which was also common slang of the time and also meant “lots.” 

Stay tuned for more, because the list is virtually endless.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. His columns are posted online at www.houstonherald.com. 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.

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