When you’re ‘under the weather,’ it’s time to ‘reap what you sow’
A few days ago I was feeling "under the weather," as they say. Not as "sick as a dog," or even "three sheets to the wind," just not quite "up to par."
At such times, even a little bit of research can "plant the seed of an idea" "…if you get my drift." In warmer weather, "research" might mean "letting the wind fill my sails" in the little red Miata I still drive, so as to "head for the hills" and "avoid the same old grind." Not today.
The result is that somehow I was able to "keep my nose to the grindstone," in order to rediscover that "fine words butter no parsnips," and then "catch a few winks" in the process.
Now I’m feeling "finer than frog hair, split three ways and French-braided." That’s pretty fine, especially since it allows me to pen a few words about phrases.
What we say – and how we say it – is a favorite topic that has fascinated me ever since the days when my father made lunch on Saturday, or when Mom sang the words to Reveille ("It’s time to get up, time to get, it’s time to get up in the morning….")
Today, 380 languages have made their way into commonplace American usage.
Many of the phrases we use in everyday conversation have gardening roots
If you asked our father what was for lunch, he might roll off: "Ham, lamb, ram, beef, mutton, bull and bear, St. Paul and that’s all…." (The St. Paul sandwich is actually a St. Louis concoction, consisting of an egg foo young patty with Mung bean sprouts and minced white onions, served with dill pickle slices, white onion, mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato between two slices of white bread. If Dad knew that, he never said, so we might get ketchup on a fried egg. Not bad, by the way.) So what’s up with "Ketchup – or catsup?, Both are Americanized slang for Chinese word for tomato juice (k’e chap).
As one who has "turned a phrase" for more than four decades, I will concede that many of them are about as overused as a quill "worn down to the nubbin."
Most of the time these idioms are words that say one thing and mean another, often in a convoluted way. Many have roots in gardening, enduring hard times, survival, and doing the best you can with what’s available – including a limited formal education.
Back when salted pork was stored in barrels and you inevitably you reached it about this time of year; "scraping the bottom of the barrel" meant food was getting scarce. Conversely, "living high on the hog" meant you were eating the best meat – the higher on the animal the better. When it came to butchering (before cooking) or carving (after cooking), a "dull tool" made for harder work. A dull tool could also describe a slow learner on the assembly line, as in "Where’d you find that dull tool?"
Where these twists and turns of phrase come from can be a life’s work if you happen to be a linguist. "Making hay while the sun shines" still means making less work because dry hay is lighter and stores longer. "Striking while the iron is hot" means the same.
If you "beat the bushes" long enough, you’ll discover that while we may use many of these phrases in everyday conversation, many are actually quite old. Some date back to the time of Shakespeare, such as "pure as the driven snow," "give the devil his due," "barking up the wrong tree," or, "dropping like flies."
One of our favorite authors, William Bryson, a "favorite son" of Des Moines, credits Shakespeare with inventing at least 10 percent of the English language, although back when English was perhaps more sparse. Today, 380 languages have made their way into commonplace American usage. Shakespeare also wrote of a "pound of flesh," and leading his characters "down the primrose path." He may also have taken many of these phrases from the work of others, since borrowing phrases and even entire scenes from other playwrights was common practice.
Idiosyncratic speech can come from anywhere:Vice President Walter Mondale’s famous "Where’s the Beef?" quip was taken from a Wendy’s television burger commercial. Actually, I always liked the "parts is parts" line better with reference to certain processed chicken products. But that never seemed to "catch on," which is a fishing phrase "if the fish didn’t get my bait."
In our history, we began to realize that although "life is not a bed of roses," eventually it will "come up roses" if you "take time to smell the roses." You might even be a "rose among thorns." Or you might just be "pushin’ up daises," if you "bit the dust."
Even now, if you want to ask me something, "don’t beat around the bush." Listen carefully, or you may be "barking up the wrong tree." The person selling you something may "lay it on like a trowel," or "gild the lily." Many a farmer has sent a bewildered "city slicker" on a "wild goose chase." Meanwhile, city folks often think their "country cousins" are "dumb as dirt," which if you know anything about soil science, ought to be a compliment.
If you "counted your chickens before they hatched," you were perhaps being naively optimistic. Do so often enough and your "chickens may come home to roost," especially if you "put all your eggs in one basket."
After a winter of being "cooped up," many of us suffer from "cabin fever." We are thankful to "get back to the same old grind."
Young men of means dressed "to the nines," a reference to a good suit that took at least nine yards of good cloth. For the not-so-well-dressed, there was "no cigar," for the love of Pete (known more formally as Saint Peter).
Women had "hen parties;" while men liked to think they "rule the roost." Ladies, if you were a "spring chicken" you were likely young and tender; much later, you could be a "tough old bird." You might be a shrinking violet or a wallflower, or just a late bloomer.
Farmers arose "with the chickens," young Turks challenged the "pecking order," tightwads could be expected to leave "chicken feed" for a tip, and an honest politician was (and perhaps still is) "rare as hens’ teeth" (very rare indeed, since hens don’t have teeth and, no, frogs don’t have hair.)
Sometimes our bromides do get twisted, such as being "prickly as a pear." Pears aren’t prickly. Prickly pear cactus is prickly. It’s kind of like confusing "water over the bridge," with "water under the dam." Before long, you don’t have "a leg to stand on." It’s a "tough row to hoe."
My own "search for the Holy Grail" of old bromides remains as elusive as the "goose that laid the golden egg." Don’t take life or good times for granted. As my extended family and good friends know, my search continues for the origins of just one phrase: "Great Balls of Glittering Codfish," a semi-humorous expression my father liked and used when he was exasperated, even after "searching high and low," I still can find no other reference than the one just today, when the Google gods seemed to be listening.
Was this to be the "answer to my prayers?"
"It was not to be," as "it turns out."
The reference was of my own making, dating back to to last time I asked how a young World War II soldier from Southeast Kansas came up with such an expression.
It was a "hard pill to swallow," but I intend to keep looking "until the cows come home." I could "turn over a new leaf" (turn a page; start anew). Keep looking for a needle in a haystack. Keep on, keepin’ on.
You could be thinking, "will this hack quit dredging up these "old bromides" (the salts of hydrobromic acid, formerly used as a sedative but now generally replaced by safer drugs).
Which brings us to a couple that have about worn me to the nub. "At the end of the day…" seems to have replaced "when all is said and done" among the gasbag crowd. And fricking, freaking or frigging, and I’m not even going there.
As I was "putting the finishing touches" on this column, along came Maria Karikitsos’ wonderful article (see page 42) about frankincense being "worth its weight in gold," or "good as gold," a reference to the Spice World of ancient times.
But for me, it’s hard to top the poor schlep who wrote, "A storm plowed through the nation’s mid-section today, as Old Man Winter left a heavy layer of the white stuff." That’s why we have copy editors.