No matter where you go or who you speak with, you’re inevitably about to hear old sayings (or idioms) and slang terms used with relative frequency.

But where in tarnation do all of these quirky words and phrases come from? Here’s another list to consider.


A familiar way to express surprise, bewilderment or anger, the term became popular in America during the 1700s.

During this period, Americans were creative in finding ways to convey strong emotions while avoiding any semblance of blasphemy. The root of “tarnation” is “darnation,” a modification of the word “damnation,” which at that time was considered unfit for polite conversation.

•Have his/her/their number.

We all know that when someone has someone else’s number, they have a decided advantage (like when one sports team has little trouble beating another).

This phrase has been used since the mid-1800s as a way to express a sense of precise appraisal. In other words, to have someone’s number refers to having figured them out precisely. 

Like many old sayings, it has taken on different meaning over the decades.

•All she wrote.

This saying will often be heard when someone is talking about an unforeseen or abrupt end to something, or when something is finished for sure or permanently.

Its origin can be traced back to World War II, when soldiers received short and to-the-point “dear John” letters from women back in the States. When one would read such a letter to another, the listener might have said, “go on” or “that’s it?” The reader would then reply, “that’s all she wrote.”

•In the nick of time.

As we know, when something happens in this manner, there was little or no time to spare.

The saying is rooted in the 1580s, when “in the nick” meant at a critical moment.

By the 1600s, “of time” had been added, and the entire phrase has been popular ever since.

•Burning the midnight oil.

When someone is doing this, we know they’re working hard and late to get something important or necessary done in time.

Long ago, before the onset of electricity, indoor lighting was largely provided by candles or oil lamps, so someone working late might literally be burning the midnight oil.

•Hunker down.

When someone uses this old saying, we know they’re either referring to a person or group of people preparing for something to happen (and maybe even having to stay in the same place for an extended period) or someone placing major focus on a task to make sure it gets done.

In Scotland in the early 1700s, the word “hunker” meant to squat or crouch, thereby keeping low to the ground but ready to move. As the phrase found its way into American English, it took on more symbolic meanings. 

•Fast asleep.

Obviously, if a person is sleeping in this manner, they’re sleeping soundly.

The “fast” is derived from an old German word, “fest,” meaning stuck firmly or not easily movable. The phrase was first used in writings in the early 1400s.

•Old fogey.

Elderly men (like me) need no explanation of what this term means.

The “fogey” part comes from the French word “fougeux,” meaning fierce or fiery.

The term was first used in the 1700s as a nickname for old or somewhat feeble soldiers who were too old to perform active duty and were used to recruit younger men.

In the 1800s, the phrase began to be used outside a military context to refer to someone who was old fashioned or out of touch. 

•Knee-jerk reaction.

When we hear someone say this, we know they’re referring to someone having a quick, sort of automatic response to something.

The term stems from the patellar reflex, an automatic extension of the leg that occurs when the tendon below the knee is struck. It has been used figuratively since the early 1900s.

•Rack your brain.

When you’re doing this, you’re of course trying your hardest to figure something out.

The “rack” is well known as a torture device used during medieval times, and the phrase was used whenever someone was under significant mental stress.

•The pits.

We all know that if something is this, it’s a very unpleasant or unfortunate thing, situation or circumstance.

While it most likely originated in the mid-1900s in the United States, its origin isn’t clear; some people think it refers to armpits, while others believe it refers to coal pits or even the area adjacent to a race track where cars are serviced.

•Ticked off.

It’s no secret that when we feel this way, we’re angry about something or at someone.

The term made its way into every day English in the early 1900s, originally meaning to reprimand or scold. The phrase “tick off” was already in use in several ways at the time, including as a description of what a telegraph did when it typed out a message, as what a clock did in marking the passage of time and to enumerate on one’s fingers.

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

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