As I’ve said in the past, going a day without hearing an old saying or slang term is pretty hard, because the English language is full of them and we Americans love them.

Finding out where these phrases and words come from is always pretty interesting (at least to me). Here are a handful more.

•Off the cuff.

The phrase is not only the title of a weekly column in the Houston Herald, but is pretty well known to mean someone speaking spontaneously or without planning.

It is thought to have originated in the 1930s when people would write notes on their shirt cuffs. Waiters were known to do it, as well as folks who might be giving a speech but hadn’t prepared anything in writing.

•Pet peeve.

We all recognize this as an expression referring to something that annoys a person or makes them angry.

The second part comes from the word “peevish,” an adjective from the 1300s meaning “ornery or ill-tempered.” The entire term was introduced to a wide readership in the comic strip “The Little Pet Peeve,” a creation of renowned cartoonist Frank King that appeared in the Chicago Tribune from 1916 to 1920.

•Holy cow.

If someone says this, everyone who can hear knows the person is expressing surprise at something.

The phrase became familiar to Americans thanks in large part to several Major League Baseball broadcasters, most famously Harry Caray of the Chicago Cubs. It may have originated with reporter and broadcaster Halsey Hall, who worked in Minneapolis, Minn., from 1919 until his death in 1977.

•Hush puppies.

Escaping slaves would throw balls of fried cornmeal out to distract hounds from tracking them.

The hounds would stop barking and tracking thanks to the cornmeal.

•Raise a toast.

The Ancient Romans would drop a piece of toast into their wine for good health.

That’s why people sometimes “raise a toast” at a party or gathering.

•Apple of my eye.

Since the pupil is essential to a human’s vision, it was long considered to be precious. In turn, when we use this phrase to describe someone, we’re saying they are cherished. 

The phrase is extremely old and first appeared in in Old English in a work attributed to King Aelfred the Great of Wessex in AD 885. It can even be found in four books of the Old Testament in the Bible.

•Basket case.

An infirm or failing person or thing – unable to function properly.

It’s rather grisly origin is of military roots, as it referred to soldiers who had lost both their arms and legs and had to be carried in a basket.

•For the birds.

As we all know, if something fits this description, it’s pretty much worthless or nonsensical.

It’s another phrase with a military background, as it was coined by soldiers the U.S. Army during World War II. The original phrase included a swear word, and was referring to birds pecking at horse manure for seeds.

•Cloud nine.

When someone feels really good about the outcome of something, they of course might be “floating on Cloud 9.”

The phrase can be connected with the 1896 edition of the International Cloud Atlas (the long-time source for cloud shapes), in which of the 10 cloud types, cloud No. 9 – cumulonimbus – was considered the biggest, puffiest and most comfortable-looking.

Now, if all this information puts you on Cloud 9, be encouraged; there is plenty more where this came from and there’s likely to be a part 28 in this series.

On the other hand, if you think it’s all for the birds, then I suggest you shield your eyes from any and all subsequent entries in the series.

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

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

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply