Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Phrases' Category

The Migration of “out of pocket”

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

George Kovac down in Miami, Florida, wrote today about an interesting shift in meaning that I thought any word nerd would be interested in. He writes:

“As you remind us often, language is not logic, and words take on slightly unpredictable nuance or even meaning as they work their way through culture and history. An example I observed happening in my lifetime is the phrase ‘out of pocket’. It originally meant money spent on purchases from third parties. For example, if you break something and pay someone to fix it, you are out of pocket for the cost of the repair. But if you fix it yourself, you are not out of pocket—you have spent your own time and resources.”

“Some time in my adult life the phrase ‘out of pocket’ also came to mean ‘unavailable’ as in ‘I can’t schedule a meeting that week because I will be out of pocket at a conference.’ That usage I find jarring and lacking in any metaphorical grounding. Unless you imagine we inhabit pockets, but that’s just dumb. In that case a more apt metaphor would be “I will be out of burrow.” But that is just a cranky observation on my part, because language moves on its own without fixed or consistent rules, and that is as it should be. Words trope.”

My reply to him was as follows:

“We mostly have pockets with devoted uses. I always keep my wallet in my left rear pocket, my change in my left front, my keys in my right front, and my handkerchief in my right rear pocket. I can understand the connection between pocket and “proper place for”. So, if I’m out of pocket without the my, I am clearly speaking metaphorically of ‘out of my proper place’.”

“On the other hand, ‘out of the pocket’ is common enough football jargon referring to a quarterback, who should remain (as long as possible) ‘in the (quarterback) pocket’, i.e. his proper place, where he should be. Maybe the connection passes through football jargon.”

Hut 1 – 2 – 3

Monday, March 18th, 2013

This just in from Dawn Shawley, the translation manager around here (i.e. at Lexiteria):

“Chris and I were talking about the hut-hut in football, and where it comes from. Sometimes I say, “Zak zak!” to the kids in German, which was always used as a “hurry up/let’s go” in my memory, and that reminded me of hup, which lead to hut in football.”

No. We know nothing about the origins. This is a Yankee mispronunciation of hup, which is a Redneck mispronunciation of hep ;-). Hep has been an interjection accompanying marching cadence for centuries. No one has any idea of why the marines or the quarterback says hup, two, three, four rather than one, two, three, four.

There is one interesting parallel, though, in Russian: Russians also avoid the equivalent of one in counting anything: raz, dva, tri, chetyri rather than odin, dva, tri, chetyri—in cadences or otherwise. I would imagine these interjections emphasize the cadence to attract attention to them. Hup does have a slight suggestion of the sense Zak zak in your mind: “hurry up/let’s go”.

What Makes Clams Happy?

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Happy as a clam means “extremely happy”. Have you ever thought about this phrase. What makes a bivalve mollusk happy, anyway?

The reason this phrase seems nonsensical is that part of it has fallen away. The original phrase was “happy as a clam at high tide”, that is, when the high tide makes the critters safe from beachcombers.

Knowing this makes me happy as a clam at high tide.

In a Pickle over Pickles

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

My old friend Richard Brockhaus long ago asked this question. Thank heaven he didn’t ask me his favorite question, the one he submitted to Saturday Night Live where it was read on a show: “What was Captain Hook’s name before he lost his hand?” That would have placed me in a pickle.

“We’re in a real pickle now” Sam says to Frodo. In my youth, being in a (baseball) rundown was called “being caught in a pickle”. Where does this come from?

In Fayetteville, NC, in the 1950’s to be or get into a pickle simple meant to be or get into a problematic situation. The girls used it more than boys, as I recall. The reason I seldom used it is that I was an interloper from red-neck country, where “step in s–t” was the preferred expression for the same meaning.

All of this, of course, is beside the point. According to most etymologists, the origin of the phrase “to be in a (pretty) pickle” is the Dutch language, where “in de pekel zitten,” “iemand in de pekel laten zitten” has been around for at least 400 years. The word pekel in Dutch can refer to the pickle or the brine that makes pickles. So the lost image is someone sitting in the brine waiting to become a pickle, probably a frightening thing when pickles were first being produced. This usage goes back to 1573, maybe 1562.

An interesting sidelight not unrelated to the meaning of the phrase: In the same century our British forebears used the phrase “in pickle” inside another phrase: “a rod in pickle”. This harkens back to the time when beating children with a rod no thicker than the thumb just didn’t do the job, so the rod used was left standing in salt brine to move the pain up a notch or two.

God Willing and the Creek don’t Rise

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Bud Sherman raised an interesting question today, one that I hadn’t thought about before, but one that deserves thought and research.

When I was growing up in the Midwest, there was a conditional phrase, ‘if the creeks don’t rise.’ I always assumed it was about flood waters. An on-line friend in the South said that it had to do with the Creek Indians.”

This phrase is the first part of the caveat, “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise”, the title of Spike Lee’s documentary on the results of Hurricane Katrina. Down South in North Carolina, where I grew up, I always heard, “The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” or “God Willing and the Creek don’t Rise.”

What is suggestive is that the phrase is wide-spread throughout the South, where the Creeks (actually Muskogees) lived and often came in conflict with Southerners. The Spanish tried to enslave them but the English set up trading posts to trade with them. Since the Creeks often had nothing to trade, periodically they would raid trading posts, resulting in conflicts. There was also the occasional out-and-out war.

Another bit of evidence is that I am very uncomfortable saying “if the creek doesn’t rise”. Everyone says, “The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” I am just as uncomfortable with your version, “the creeks don’t rise.” The interesting thing about this fact is that, while substituting don’t for doesn’t is not uncommon in many English dialects, Indian names were generally treated like the null-plural animals: deer : deer, fish : fish, Creek : Creek. Settlers all over the US at the time spoke of one Creek and many Creek.

Finally, a flooding creek doesn’t present any danger. What don’t we say, “God willing and the river don’t rise”?

Now Susanne Williams has brought Benjamin Hawkins to my attention. Apparently, he had good reason to refer to the Creeks and may have even written the phrase with Creek capitalized. If this is so, we need only track down the letter in which Hawkins used this phrase for the first time, and we will have settled the issue.

Not that Great of an Error?

Friday, December 19th, 2008

On Kieth Olberman’s MSNBC show “Countdown” last Tuesday, Howard Fineman of Newsweek said: “He doesn’t have that great of a story to tell,” instead of, “He doesn’t have that great a story to tell.” Why do people make this mistake?

The problem resides in the nature of quantifiers, which serve as both nouns and adjectives in sentences.  “Quantifier?” you might want to ask. “What is a quantifier?”

A quantifier is pretty much what it sounds like: a category of words that indicates quantities. Much, some, many are all quantifiers. So is little, as in, “Little of the money Madoff made off with can now be found.”

We know little in this case is a quantifier because of the presence of the preposition of following it. In English, of marks the items or substances that are measured by quantifiers. It is used with all the quantifiers mentioned above:

  • much of the money
  • some of the money
  • many of the investors


Unsurprisingly, numbers are also quantifiers, as we see in:

  • two of the investors
  • 43 of the investors
  • eleven of the investors


The problem is that all of these quantifiers can also function as adjectives: much money, some money, many people, a little dog; even the numbers: two investors, eleven investors. This is one of the characteristics of English quantifiers: they are both adjectives and nouns. This leads some to use pure adjectives as quantifiers, as Fineman did when he said, “that great of a story” where he apparently meant either “that great a story” or “that much of a story.”

In fact, the correct construction itself may be a syntactic curve ball that confuses some speakers.  Noun phrases like, “that great a story”, are unique in allowing the adjective to be placed before the article a(n). This construction may throw some speakers, leading them to think a preposition is missing. Well, it isn’t. That is a normal syntactic construction of English, one that proves the article does not always come first in a noun phrase.

Clichés and Idioms

Friday, December 5th, 2008

Someone (probably Paul Ogden) last month sent me a link to an article by Robert Fulford in the National Post of Canada called, “Are Clichés the Achille’s Heel of Language?” He comes to no conclusion (some clichés are bad; others are OK) but it opened the door to a question I have long pondered: “Why do literary critics and grammarians write so much about clichés but never mention idioms?

What are most often called clichés are, in fact, idioms. For example, if you enter “cat” into the amateurish Cliche-Finder website, the following idioms are produced:

rain cats and dogs
there’s more than one way to skin a cat
let the cat out of the bag
fat cat

These are not clichés but idioms. An idiom is a phrase that is a metaphor of the meaning intended, as cats and dogs really means “heavily, intensely”, while skin a cat in the second example simple mean “do anything”. The entire phrase fly off the handle means “to get angry” while to climb the walls means “to be extremely frustrated”.

These are idioms, phrases that cannot be interpreted word for word and each is, in fact, treated as though it were a single word. Unlike actual words, idioms are stored in the right side of our brain, the side that does holistic thinking. Right-brain thought interprets the world in terms of whole things rather than breaking them down into their individual components for interpretation. That is how we process idioms: pretty much the same way as we process individual words.

Clichés are, as any good dictionary will tell you, trite, overused expressions like sprawling epic, minor quibble, penetrating insight, emotional roller-coaster, mentioned in Fulford’s article. These are not idioms with one meaning, but rather analyzable phrases comprising individual words bundled together. The problem with them is that they are overused when other word combinations are possible, combinations that express more subtle semantic variations.

Clichés are turns of phrase that were original when first used but which have subsequently become boring and wooden, if not stilted. They need to be replaced by fresher metaphors: a hurricane of emotions for emotional rollercoaster, a petty quibble for minor quibble, an eye-opening insight for penetrating insight (or something better).

We could just as well say, expansive epic, broad epic, awkwardly oversized epic, and so on. In each case the phrase’s meaning is changed only by the meaning of the replacement adjective while the meaning of epic remains unchanged. By making such changes in different contexts, however, we achieve a higher level of subtlely and expressiveness.

We do not have this flexibility with idioms. We cannot adjust “fly off the handle” to “fly off the frying pan” or “leap off the handle” and still retain the reference to losing our temper. Unike those of the cliché, the meanings of idioms are tamper-proof.

All we can do to eliminate repetitious idioms from our speech and writing is to avoid them altogether. But avoiding idioms renders language lifeless and academic if not lexically prudish. Idioms are the curve balls of language that shape its character.

We have a separate category of jokes based on the potential literal interpretation of idioms (The flies in our kitchen are so frustrated they are climbing the walls). We play with them every day in other ways, as well. Idioms are, in fact, unavoidable in any written or spoken language that is alive. Long live idioms!

Let’s Talk Turkey about Turkeys

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

Gobble, gobble, gobble, degook!English has two expressions referring to turkeys that seem unrelated. To talk turkey means to get down to serious straighforward talking while cold turkey is a term usually applied to withdrawing directly from an addiction: to kick a drug habit cold turkey or give up smoking cold turkey.
We are not suffering from a lack of explanations. One goes back to colonial times when Indians often brought turkeys to the original settlers on the East Coast. Since the turkey was often the coin of trade, “talking turkey” could have meant getting down to serious negotiations. We have no evidence of that.

Michael Quinion picks upon the Oxford English Dictionary’s claim that the phrase at one time meant “to talk agreeably or affably, to say pleasant things”, suggesting that this sense arose around the Thanksgiving table, where turkey has been the central fare for some time in the US. (The phrase definitely came from the US.) The examples of this meaning that I can find are not convincing and Quinion doesn’t provide any.

I am going to suggest another possibility. The OED claims that one of the meanings of this phrase was at one time “to talk in high-flown language”. This makes sense since turkeys strut, their feathers puffed out and their tail feathers fanned like a peacock’s, when they gobble. The OED found at least one example suggesting this meaning from John Beedle’s Sleigh Ride, Courtship and Marriage, a novel by William McClintock published in 1841: “I was plaguy apt to talk turkey always when I got sociable, if it was only out of politeness.”

While high-flown language is looked on disparagingly in the US, it is usually reserved for serious situations rather than affable ones. “Seriously” seems to be the meaning of the phrase in this line from A Little Bit of Tid-Re-I, II, published in 1824: “So that, all things considered, I hope neither the Indian, whom the Yankey could not cheat in the division of their game (a turkey and a buzzard,)..will accuse me of not talking Turkey to them in this article.”

The 1903 issue of Dialect Notes II has an entry: “Talk turkey, v. phr., to talk plainly: ‘I’m going to talk turkey with him and see if I can’t get him to mend his ways.'” The American preference for straightforwardness in serious discussions could have pulled the meaning of this word in the direction of “plainness” but something else happened at about the same time that makes this even more likely.

Early in 20th century this talking turkey was sometimes extended to talking cold turkey. This expression clearly meant “talking plainly but very seriously”. Cold implies the status of people and machines before they are warmed up, right after starting, and fits the sense of plainly, i.e. without preparation, rehearsal or warming up. The January 4, 1928 issue of The Daily Express (11/5) contained the following sentence: “She talked cold turkey about sex.”

Now, even though the OED’s examples seem to reverse the chronology, I am suggesting talk cold turkey in the sense of “talk plainly and very seriously” became simply talk turkey, not vice versa. We should not depend too heavily on published sources here. Talk cold turkey may well have preceded talk turkey in the sense of “plainly and seriously” in speech but took more time finding its way into print.

The interesting aspect of the extended phrase, talk cold turkey in the sense of “plainness”, is that the other mysterious turkey phrase is cold turkey. Quinion says that this sense is unrelated to the first; but is it?

If cold turkey meant “plainly and very seriously” at the turn of the century, could it not easily have migrated to the sense of kicking a drug habit plainly and very seriously, which is to say, without help, intervention, or preparation? It would have been strongly influenced by the phrase cold sweats, a state which often accompanies withdrawing from an addiction. I think this history makes eminent sense and is supported by evidence, however scant it may be in spots.

A side note: turkey also meant  “nothing, not a word, diddledy, squat”, toward the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century as we see in this sentence: “You never said turkey to me about leaving.” This meaning no doubt derived directly from the phrase talk turkey. If you talk turkey, turkey is what you talk, i.e. words.

Phrasal Folk Etymology

Friday, November 7th, 2008

My old friend Chris Stewart in South Africa wrote recently:

I do however remember that I was pondering how certain words only survive in phrases (like Kith as in “Kith & Kin”, or Fell as in “Fell Swoop”—or, as the dyslexic community I belong to might say, a “Swell Foop”, which somehow seems to sound like it means something).

Phrases like “kith and kin” and “to and fro”, in fact, don’t survive. We insist on having current words even in our unpredictable idioms. Most Americans now say “kissin’ kin” and “back and forth” instead of using their archaic counterparts. You meet the archaic phrases only in the written word.

“One fell swoop” is OK because all the words in that phrase are current English words, with or without their original meanings. The important issue seems to be that the components of English phrases, idiomatic or not, be current words in English, whether they make sense in the phrase or not.

The same applies to folk etymology, which I have just explained in the latest addition to Dr. Goodword’s Office and the alphaDictionary resources (click here). Folk etymology converts strange-sounding foreign words into user-friendly English words. The interesting fact is that folk etymology does not care if the words involved make sense so long as they are actual, current English words.

Old French, mousseron, for example, became English mushroom. Mushroom? Mushrooms are not rooms and they have nothing to do with mush? That doesn’t matter to folk etymology so long as mush and room are current English words.

Electile Dysfunction

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

A neologistic sniglet of the 2004 US presidential elections has returned to us.  We wouldn’t suggest adding it to our dictionaries but it is worth remembering:

Electile Dysfunction: The inability to become aroused by any of the choices for president put forth by either party in the 2008 election year.

Thank you Paul Ogden and Chris Stewart.