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Friday, March 29, 2013

A miss is as good as a mile

This proverb means that if you fail at something, it doesn't matter whether you fail by a little or a lot. For example - If you come second in a race it doesn't matter whether you lose by one inch or by one mile; you still lose.  Failure is failure no matter how small the margin of failure. 

This saying dates from the 18th century. The expression may or may not be American in origin, but the root source is certainly the British Isles. James Kelly included it in A Complete Collection of Scotish Proverbs, 1721:
"An inch of a miss is as good as a span - a span is the distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger of a man's hand, usually formalised as 9 inches."
The exact phrase "a miss is as good as a mile," seem to first be found in print in the American work,The American Museum, Volume 3 , 1788. It says, "A smart repartee... will carry you through with eclat such as, 'a miss is as good as a mile.'"

 It means a miss by a small distance is just as good as a miss by a large distance. Either way, it is still a miss.

Our American version is: 'close but no cigar.'

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Woman's Place Is In the Home

This notion has been expressed in a variety of forms by numerous people over the ages, all of them men of course. The proper proverbial place for a woman is usually expressed as 'the home' but is and has been also said to be 'the family' and 'the kitchen'.

The ancient Greeks got in there first. The playright Aeschylus, in Seven Against Thebes, 467 B.C., wrote:
"Let women stay at home and hold their peace."
 Moving into sources written in English, we find Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs, 1732:
"A Woman is to be from her House three times: when she is Christened, Married and Buried."
 In 1832, The New Sporting Magazine, Volume 3, included the earliest example of 'a woman's place is in the home' that I can find in print:
"A woman's place is her own home, and not her husband's countinghouse."
 Times change and with them our proverbs. In November 1970, Time magazine printed a piece titled Newcomers in the House. Bella Abzug campaigned for office in the US Congress using the slogan "This woman’s place is in the House... the House of Representatives."

Friday, March 22, 2013

Raining cats and dogs

The phrase isn't related to the well-known antipathy between dogs and cats.  Nor is the phrase in any sense literal, i.e. it doesn't record an incident where cats and dogs fell from the sky.

We do know that the phrase was in use in a modified form in 1653, when Richard Brome's comedy The City Wit or The Woman Wears the Breeches referred to stormy weather with the line:

"It shall raine... Dogs and Polecats".

The much more probable source of 'raining cats and dogs' is the prosaic fact that, in the filthy streets of 17th/18th century England, heavy rain would occasionally carry along dead animals and other debris. The animals didn't fall from the sky, but the sight of dead cats and dogs floating by in storms could well have caused the coining of this colourful phrase. Jonathan Swift described such an event in his satirical poem 'A Description of a City Shower', first published in the 1710 collection of the Tatler magazine.

The first appearance of the currently used version is in Jonathan Swift’s A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversationin 1738:

"I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs".

The fact that Swift had alluded to the streets flowing with dead cats and dogs some years earlier and now used 'rain cats and dogs' explicitly is good evidence that poor sanitation was the source of the phrase as we now use it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"warms the cockles of my heart"

What are the "cockles of your heart" and why do they need warming?

The meaning can be interpreted as the "cockles of the heart" are warmed by an emotional experience that exposes the tender and warm side of the human experience, thus opening of the "heart".

The expression turns up first in the middle of the seventeenth century, and the earliest form of the idiom was 'rejoice the cockles of one’s heart'. 

Some say cockles is a medical term. Cockles are a type of bivalve mollusc. They are frequently heart-shaped (their formal zoological genus was at one time Cardium, of the heart) with ribbed shells.The heart is composed of various parts that work in unison to pump blood throughout the body. One of the parts of the heart is called a ventricle. Anyway, the Latin tem for the heart's ventricles is "cochleae cordis". Could "cockle" be a corruption of the medieval Latin word for heart - cochleae cordis?

The cockles of your heart are its ventricles and thus by extension, the innermost depths of one’s heart or emotions. The word comes from the Latin phrase cochleae cordis, meaning ‘ventricles of the heart.’ —Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins

My thanks to http://www.wordwizard.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=20208 for their forum on this topic that helped to clear up some of the confusion.

Friday, March 15, 2013

"at my wits' end"

'To be at wits' end' is, literally, to run out of ideas. To be very worried or upset because you have tried every possible way to solve a problem but cannot do it. Completely puzzled, perplexed, not knowing what to do. I've tried every possible source without success, now I'm at my wit's end.

Note that the apostrophe is placed after the s of wits (meaning abilities), not after wit (one's humor or intelligence).

The phrase comes from the Bible, Psalms 107:27 (King James Version): "They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits' end." The original Hebrew of the Bible says, "חָ֝כְמָתָ֗ם תִּתְבַּלָּֽע׃ " which is transliterated as "chachematam titballa." This is translated as "their wits' end."

The phrase has also been used when a diagnosis for an illness cannot seem to be found for a person.'

It's most frequent use seems to be by parents.  Mothers and fathers have said "I am at my wits' end" when it comes to thinking of things to keep children busy.

Monday, March 11, 2013

What will it take?

'Arm' and 'leg' are used as examples of items that no one would consider selling other than at an enormous price. 

The tale is often repeated that portrait painters used to charge more for larger paintings and that a head and shoulders painting was the cheapest option, followed in price by one which included arms and finally the top of the range 'legs and all' portrait. Actually, that's not a fact. There's no evidence to suggest painters charged by limb count.

The phrase, 'An arm and a leg,' is much more recent then that. The earliest citation found is from The Long Beach Independent, December 1949:
Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say "Merry Christmas" and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.
A more likely explanation is that the expression derived from two earlier phrases: 'I would give my right arm for...' and '[Even] if it takes a leg', which were both coined in the 19th century. The earliest example found of the former in print is from an 1849 edition of Sharpe's London Journal:
He felt as if he could gladly give his right arm to be cut off if it would make him, at once, old enough to go and earn money instead of Lizzy.
Others have suggested it derives naturally from a 19th century expression "if it takes a leg" and the other earlier expression "I'd give my right arm."

Following is a humorous source of this phrase which I can't authenticate:

Adam told god he was lonely, so god said I will create a perfect companion for you who will always look after you, do all the house work, cook all the food, carry your children, look after you when you are sick, love and cherish you always. When you have an argument your companion will always be the first to say sorry because you were right. 
That sounds to good to be true said Adam, how much will this cost me god. 
And god said an arm and a leg. 
so Adam said what can I get for a rib? 
And the rest is History. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Am I Boring You?

Flibbertigibbet. This musical-sounding word, doesn’t come into use very often. I like the sound of it; it means a chattering or flighty, light-headed person.

A medieval morality play written around 1425, The Castle of Perseverance, records the first instance various forms of the word was used including, flepergebet, flypyrgebet, and flepyrgebet, which were to crystalize later as flibbertigibbet.

In 1603, Samuel Harsnett, used Fliberdigibbet (with a "d") in his hilarious polemic A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures to denote not a gossiping fishwife, but a demon.

Shakespeare's King Lear (IV, (1605)) also uses the word.  He is one of the five fiends Edgar claimed possessed him.

A local legend states that Flibbertigibbet was apprentice to Wayland the Smith, and greatly exasperated his master. Eventually Wayland threw Flibbertigibbet down the hill and into a valley, where he transformed into a stone. 

Another historical connection, and likely origin of the word, comes from "fly by the gibbet." A gibbet refers to a platform or cage used to execute criminals. The remains over time would be picked apart by small creatures and birds and thus 'fly away'.

"Fly by the Gibbet" may also have been used as a sailing expression to refer to hoisting the gibbet sail. This is a large sail that can be used when sailing with the direction of the wind to capture as much wind as possible.

In the musical The Sound of Music, the nuns sing "How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? How do you find a word that means Maria? A flibbertigibbet. A will-o'-the-wisp. A clown."

So there you have it—an unusual-sounding word that could have several origins.

Monday, March 4, 2013

come a cropper

Originally, this term was used to discuss a physical fall, specifically from a horse, and over time it was expanded to refer to metaphorical falls.

The phrase is first cited in Robert S. Surtees’ Ask Mamma, 1858: [He] “rode at an impracticable fence, and got a cropper for his pains.”

For the actual derivation we need to consider the nether quarters of a horse - the croup or crupper. In the 18th century, anyone who took a headlong fall from a horse was said to have fallen 'neck and crop'; for example, this extract from the English poet Edward Nairne's Poems, 1791:

A man on horseback, drunk with gin and flip,
Bawling out - Yoix - and cracking of his whip,
The startish beast took fright, and flop
The mad-brain'd rider tumbled, neck and crop!

 'Neck and crop' and 'head over heels' probably both derive from the 16th century term 'neck and heels', which had the same meaning. 'Come a cropper' is just a colloquial way of describing a 'neck and crop' fall. By 1859, the phrase has come to refer to any failure rather than just the specific failure to stay on a horse.

The tall tale about the origins of “come a cropper” involves Thomas Henry Cropper, a man who developed a version of the platen printing press in the mid-1800s. The story goes that over time, all platen presses were referred to as “croppers,” and that someone could “come a cropper” by getting his or her fingers stuck in the workings of the press. While trapping body parts in a press is a very real danger of printing, especially with older presses, this charming story is patently false.

Friday, March 1, 2013

'down to brass tacks'

“Down to brass tacks”:  to get to the heart of the matter – focus on the essentials -  talk about the basic facts of a particular situation.

The phrase was coined in or about the 1860s. The idea of “down to brass tacks” meant “down to the very bottom” was originally based on the tacks in shoe/boot heels/soles.

The first appearance in print found in the January 1863 issue of a Texas newspaper, The Tri-Weekly Telegraph:
          "When you come down to 'brass tacks' - if we may be allowed the expression - everybody is 
          governed by selfishness."

Later it came to relate to the brass-headed tacks used in furniture upholstery.  But only the decorative heads of these tacks are made of brass. In order to re-upholster a chair, the upholsterer would need first to remove all the tacks and fabric coverings, thus getting down to the basic frame of the chair. This hardly seems to match the meaning as the brass tacks would be the first thing to be removed rather than the last.

A second explanation involves the practice of cloth being measured between brass tacks which were set into a shop's counter for accurate measurement. Such simple measuring devices were in use in the late 19th century - shopkeepers used brass tacks to measure the length of a piece of cloth.  Brass tacks along his work table helped him measure the exact amount.

The expression is also often said to be an example of Cockney rhyming slang, meaning 'facts'. In the strange world of Cockney argot, 'tacks' does indeed rhyme with 'facts' (facks), but that's as far as it goes.

Another idea is that during the time of the Civil war, the Adjutant General of the states were required to issue an annual report.  The book included a complete inventory of what is stored in the Arsenal ranging from brass canons, tar buckets, sabers, bridles, muskets.  The very “Last” item on this list is “Brass Tacks”. Brass tacks were put on the soles of soldiers shoes to extend the life of the leather soles. - Pennsylvania Adjutant Generals Report - 1863

The 'fabric measuring' derivation is the strongest candidate.  'Getting down to brass tax,' as it is sometimes referred to appears to be just a misspelling.