The decline and fall of common phrases

February 13, 2020 § Leave a comment

A woman slammed the phone down on my friend yesterday – or did she. They were talking – on mobile phones – she got angry and she abruptly and angrily ended the call. But did she actually, literally, physically, slam down the phone on him? Probably not – unless she was also intent on wrecking her mobile.

So that’s one phrase in the English language whose days are numbered. There are others:

  1. Carbon copy. When I was a young journalist using a manual typewriter I used carbon paper to make a copy of the story I was writing. Carbon paper isn’t necessary now that we all use computers. However…we’re using ‘carbon copy’ often without knowing it. When we cc somebody on an email, we all know that we’re copying them in. We don’t all know (I didn’t) that cc stands for carbon copy.
  2. Winding down the window (of a car). We don’t do that anymore. In place of the winder-type apparatus that was fitted in old cars, we use a button and the window shoots down.
  3. Kodak moment. In the days of camera film, we were careful about capturing the moment we wanted to cherish on film – frankly because we had to pay for it to be developed and, in the first place, make the effort to go to the developer. So a Kodak moment, named after popular photographic film, was a special picture moment. These days billions of pictures are taken every minute on Smart Phones, special or not. We just snap away.
  4. Nothing to write home about – meaning it’s not big news. Back in the day, before mobile phones, people actually wrote letters to family when they had news – even sent postcards when they were on holiday! But if they didn’t have news or weren’t on holiday they had ‘nothing to write home about’.
  5. Put somebody through the wringer – to give them a hard time. Several generations back wringers were used to squeeze every last drop of water from just-washed clothes. Now machines do the hard work but we’ve carried on using the expression to suggest someone’s been drained of everything they’ve got! eg. the lawyer really put him through the wringer.
  6. Snapping a photograph. I just used the ‘snap a picture’ expression in Point 3 – where did we get that from? Simple – old cameras used to make a snapping sound when they took the shot.
  7. And, is a newspaper still a newspaper when it’s published online – no paper involved!

There must be many more phrases that don’t really make sense any more. Any thoughts? Answers on a postcard please – well, not literally. We don’t need to send postcards when we can whizz over a suggestion via the comments box.

Money for old rope – literally

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

The phrase ‘money for old rope’ stems from the days of public hangings, according to a game I was playing at the weekend. Actually I know that story’s up for debate but I like it so I’m going to believe it.

Legend goes that ghoulish spectators wanted to buy pieces of the rope used for the hanging as a sort of souvenir and it was regarded as a perk of the job for the hangman to sell it.

Another explanation has it that workers in the workhouse were given used and damaged rope to pick apart to salvage the good stuff to be spun into new rope. Possible but not nearly as interesting a story so I’m afraid I’m going to dismiss it in favour of the ‘hanging’ version. Any thoughts?

Do you know about Bowler Hat?

February 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

Actually I don’t mean do you know about Bowler Hat Media, the agency, but do you know about bowler hat, the hat? I confess I didn’t until just now when I was looking though a new book I bought the other day, Bloomers, Biros & Wellington Boots – How the Names Became the Words.

It talks about the famous one we all know, for example – Hoover – which is a word many of us tend to use for a vacuum cleaner but was in fact handed down by Henry Hoover who invented a contraption to suck up dirt so should really only be applied to that specific brand.

Bloomers, biros and wellington boots are similarly named after their inventors and, I was surprised, to see, so is the bowler hat. Well, sort of – I’m not sure how convinced I am about this one. I thought the hat got its name from being bowl-shaped but the book maintains that bowler is a derivative of Beaulieu, the surname of feltmakers Thomas and William who were involved in its production.

This book by Andrew Sholl is full of gems and some others I liked  were:

  • mentor – in Greek mythology Mentor was an old friend of Odysseus who acted as an adviser to his son;
  • plimsolls – English politician Samuel Plimsoll (late 19th century) campaigned against unsafe conditions at sea. He became known as the sailor’s friend and gave his name to new rubber-soled footwear introduced on boats;
  • mesmerise – Austrian physician Frank Mesmer used hypnosis as a therapy back in the 18th century and gave his name to the word;
  • galvanise – Luigi Galvani, a professor of anatomy in Italy discovered that frogs’ legs would move and twitch when they came into contact with metal during a thunderstorm;
  • biro – it was Lazlo Biro, a Hungarian journalist, who hit upon the idea of a pen with a steel ball to control the ink flow and he registered his first patent in 1943;
  • bloomers – womens rights campaigner Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-94) saw the baggy knickers as good, comfy wear for women;
  • wellington boots – it was the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) who made them popular and gave them his name.

It got me thinking, what legacy have I left that should be named after me in years to come? But, you see, there’s a major flaw in that thought, nobody can pronounce the name, Lefebve and that includes some of my own family…..

Why a dead ringer’s a dead ringer!

September 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

I love finding out the origin of phrases and ‘dead ringer’ is a pretty spectacular one, to say the least.

A ‘dead ringer’ is somebody who looks very much like someone else and the expression stems back to Medieval Ages. Back in the day medical science wasn’t what it is now and when someone seemed to have stopped breathing, medics weren’t terribly sure that they were actually dead. Ridiculous as this may sound, the poor sickly person was buried anyway, rather than clutter up the place! To be fair, it’s thought that comas weren’t understood at that time and that could be one of the reasons that people were thought to be lifeless.

Often bodies were exhumed and corpses were found with their fingers literally worn down to the bone and the insides of coffin lids scratched silly by the poor people, who had regained consciousness, trying to escape. So nightmarish was this vision that the gentry began to bury their loved ones with a string attached to their wrist, connected to a bell – and should the medics have the diagnosed death wrongly, the prematurely buried body could ring for attention.

It sounds like a bit of a pantomime but it actually worked and many bodies were dug up and returned to where they belonged (above ground).

As the freshly-exhumed went about their normal life, though, they shocked acquaintances who thought they were dead. Friends would wonder: ‘That looks like Fred Smith – he was buried last month’ and then they’d figure ‘Oh, he must be a dead ringer.’ And, of course, they would have been right!

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