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From Whence They Came

I was rewriting a short story yesterday morning and decided on the title, “The Nick of Time.” Though the phrase isn’t mentioned anywhere in the story, its implications are fierce—linking the main plot and the subplot—I hope anyway. These vehicles we use to write—setting the tone as tragic or comic, voice patterns of characters, memorable moments, fissures or cracks in the story—it’s difficult to bring them all together so that whomever is reading wants to keep reading.

The title got me thinking about where phrases come from. The word, whence, according to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary showed up in the 13th century. During my intensive research, I found arguments of whether one should say, “From whence” or simply “Whence.” You can imagine how riveting that was so I just went with “from whence.”

What’s the Point?

The point of this post is to explore where some of our favorite and most used (or ill-used) phrases come from.

Red Herring

This is a kipper. And it's red.

This is a kipper. And it’s red.

When we’re reading a great book or story, it’s the “red herring” that throws us. Remember the first time you watched the Sixth Sense?

According to sources, it comes from fugitives smearing a red herring across a trail to keep hunters with hounds from finding their trail. Another theory is that an English journalist used a red herring when he was a little boy to mislead those hounds again, following a trail. Then he began to use it as a metaphor. It’s really a smoked kipper, which obviously is so off-putting; it really takes one away from the matter at hand. A diversion, so you don’t see what’s coming.

Drunker Than Cooter Brown 

He either looked like this or maybe turtle-like.

He either looked like this or maybe turtle-like.

Maybe some of you haven’t heard this one. It’s more of a Southern phrase but rumor has it there was this guy who didn’t want to fight in the Civil War and he lived right on the North and South line. To avoid fighting, he stayed drunk which made him unsuitable for all that nastiness. Another story is that Cooter was biracial, born and raised in Louisiana and he stayed drunk all the time and dressed up like an Indian. Still another guess is that it dates back to the 1800s where the lovely Southern phrase, “drunk as a cooter,” (a cooter is a turtle, who knew?) morphed into the Cooter Brown phrase. Maybe because turtles are slow moving and it was related to the careful, slow gait of an inebriated individual?

Pure as the Driven Snow 

I’m sorry for those of you who’ve been relating to this for some time now and I’ll just bet you’re not thinking of those drifts as anything besides cavernous white crap that won’t go away. Shakespeare started it all with A Winter’s Tale and Macbeth where “Lawn as white as driven snow,” and “Black Macbeth will seem as pure as snow,” respectively, appeared. Those of you familiar with these drifts—are you thinking of them as pure and clean or do other adjectives and/or phrases come to mind?

A friend sent me this picture of her house/yard. She didn't once use the words pure or driven.

A friend sent me this picture of her house/yard. She didn’t once use the words pure or driven.

Love is Blind

This one dates back to the 1400s. Chaucer used it in Merchant’s Tale. According to sources, Shakespeare used it in many of his works. When we’re in love it affects the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking according to a study by University College London and a Rutgers University study concluded that the brain’s amygdala, responsible for memory, decision-making and emotional reactions is “temporarily mothballed.” Ah, love it’s a double-edged sword (implication there is that it cuts both ways, dates back to Biblical times).

A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush

Wiktionary says this one dates back to 13th century Latin. Anyone study Latin? Or, it could have been uttered as far back as the 6th century from the Eastern proverb about a sparrow in the hand is worth more than a thousand of them flying around. It means that a sure thing is better than taking a risk on something that may or may not turn out. Tell that to any risk-taker or leader and they’ll disagree.

Right as Rain

It’s appeared since the 1800s and some believe it’s because rain falls straight down, as in a straight line (right, good, perfect) and others think it’s the rain reference because rain makes things flourish and grow. Put the two together and it sounds mellifluous, doesn’t it? It does…right as rain.

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black 

Dates back to the 1600s when kitchen pots and kettles used became black (from fire and soot and such) from that use. When we use it, we’re telling someone that they’re being hypocritical.

Break a Leg

There are superstitions that theorize if you tell someone something such as “Good Luck” the opposite will happen. When we visited St. Thomas, we were told that the natives of the island did not want you to tell them “Have a nice day.” Doing so would jinx them into having just the opposite. Hubby forgot as we were leaving and told a nice lady of the island that. She averted his eyes, lifted her hand and waved it in a no-no way as she shook her head. Same thing here. Most think it has to do with actors, the theater and the superstitions associated with it. According to The Phrase Finder, it could be from a corruption of a Hebrew phrase during WWII that meant success.

Over and Out

This means I’ve come to the end of this post and though we hear this in movies and we say it, from what I’ve read, “over” and “out” are mutually exclusive. The military and others who use these prowords don’t say “over and out.”

Anyway. I’m going to end with two more:

Do I LOOK frail to you?

Do I LOOK frail to you?

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. From the poet and playwright William Cosgrove who stated it this way in his Mourning Bride:

“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

And from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Frailty, thy name is woman! Bill wrote more than a few times about weak women and Hamlet had some Mom issues so I think there’s something to all that. As most of us females know, we’ve come a long way, baby and frailty just isn’t in my wheelhouse.

Oh, and “in the nick of time” relates all the way back to the 1500s and it has to do with pudding.

Happy weekend.


Do you have some favorite phrases? Phrases you hate? Did you hear unique phrases from your parents or grandparents when you were growing up?

The Phrase Finder
English Language & Usage
Photo creds:  Red Herring, Cooter Brown, Woman


About Brigitte



30 thoughts on “From Whence They Came

  1. You covered quite a few sayings here, Brig, and yes, this Northerner never heard “Drunker than Cooter Brown”, but it made me think of the expression, “old coot” (a phrase I loathe). The fact that this guy, someone seemingly so incompetent, could live on for decades in the vernacular, is head-spinning but on some level, he/it explains why intellectually vacant Kim Kardashian is a multi-millionaire.

    The phrase that came to mind that people in my orbit still use regularly is “knock on wood” or “knock wood”. Personally, I’m not a wood-knocker, but it doesn’t offend me. In fact, it’s earned its Wikipedia entry:


    Posted by lameadventures | February 20, 2015, 2:03 pm
  2. I remember reading a lot of these types of phrases in school literature and it wasn’t until high school that I started understanding what some of them meant. Red herring in particular threw me off and I’d be so confused, flipping through the pages looking for mentions of red and herrings. All of these do remind me of a Taiwanese saying that my mom often said to me growing up. Literally, it translates as: “Some shrimp is better than no fish.” Figuratively, it means that something is better than nothing. Hope you have a great weekend ahead!

    Posted by lillianccc | February 20, 2015, 2:45 pm
    • It is confusing, Lillian. Especially since there is no such fish as a red herring! The phrase your Mom said to you is similar to the a bird in the hand phrase. Thought I know now from living on this earth for awhile that sometimes something isn’t better than nothing. It just depends on what that something is. ;). You have good one too. Nice to see you.

      Posted by Brigitte | February 20, 2015, 2:56 pm
  3. The pot calling the kettle black is a favorite frequently invoked by my darling daughter when my sweet husband appears to be making hypocritical statements. I rather like “water under the bridge.” I like the image of the water slipping under the bridge, cleansing whatever no-no I’m referring to, and reappearing on the other side all clean and fresh again to frolic its way downstream. So nice to visit with you for a bit, dear friend! 😉 xoxoM

    Posted by Margarita | February 20, 2015, 2:52 pm
    • Ha! Your darling and your sweet sound like a pair, M. I like that phrase about water too. Didn’t’ think of that one but of course you would — it sounds peaceful, soothing and serene — and all about letting go of what we don’t need anymore. Nice to have you visit, my friend and thank you.

      Posted by Brigitte | February 20, 2015, 2:59 pm
  4. I always love learning the origins of phrases and idioms, so thank you for these. Of course, if we include any of these in our manuscripts, we’ll get red-lined by the editor for using such cliches. But I often pepper my everyday speech with them. Some habits die hard. 🙂

    Posted by Carrie Rubin | February 20, 2015, 3:28 pm
    • You’re welcome Carrie. I do remember a time when research required far more than a few clicks but for lighthearted blogging purposes I’m giving myself some leeway. Now if one your characters used these phrases maybe your editor would put down that red pen. Have a good one, Carrie and as always thanks for dropping by. :).


      Posted by Brigitte | February 20, 2015, 3:38 pm
  5. I’ve never heard “Drunker than Cooter Brown.” That’s a good one. I always enjoy learning more about our rich English language. I wish I could think of something off the top of my head…I think it’s as dead as a doornail. Oh, there’s one. Ha! Good to see you, Brigitte.

    Posted by Amy Reese | February 20, 2015, 4:44 pm
    • Many haven’t unless she/he are from the South I don’t think. Deader than a door nail has been around forever and I’ve heard that one too. Good to be seen, Amy and I need to visit you. You’ve got a redesign on your blog, haven’t you? And, you participate in Friday fiction don’t you? Do you find it’s helped your writing, in both habit and form? I’ve been an absent blogger and visitor to some good blogs, one of which is yours. Thank you for stopping by, Amy.


      Posted by Brigitte | February 20, 2015, 5:14 pm
      • I’m forever changing things up. It’s probably more procrastination than anything. 🙂 But yes! I’ve redesigned and am back to The Bumble Files. I’m still doing FF and yes, I think it’s helped tremendously. It’s good to have a routine of sorts. I try to post twice a week, one FF. So, if someone wants to drop in for a quick visit, they can. Thanks for the kind words. I miss seeing you. So many of my friends have left, disappeared. They have what I call “ghost blogs.” They are only there in spirit. 🙂 Glad to see you back.

        Posted by Amy Reese | February 20, 2015, 5:37 pm
      • That’s a good thing, change. My blog is ghostly from time to time. I’ve got to try the flash fiction. I think it forces one to choose words wisely and you know brevity isn’t one of my virtues.


        Posted by Brigitte | February 20, 2015, 7:21 pm
      • It definitely helps with word choice and writing more tightly. You should give it a go! It would be fun. It’s a great community. People are really supportive.

        Posted by Amy Reese | February 20, 2015, 7:59 pm
  6. These are great! I’d never heard of “Cooter Brown,” although I DID know that “Cooter” was Southern for turtle (be warned–it also has a prurient definition).

    I often think about the phrases we use and how and when they came into public use. I listened to a lecture series recently that highlighted some of these (and unfortunately, none spring to mind immediately), that often sound age-old, but have been with us for only a few decades.

    I also think about the terms we use today, that would have baffled a person only twenty years ago. “Red State/Blue State; rollover minutes; streaming,” and even words that existed for many years and then virtually disappeared, only to appear again, like “stylus.”

    Posted by Smaktakula | February 20, 2015, 6:21 pm
    • I almost didn’t mention it for that reason because I know what you’re referring to but I heard that expression so much growing up (drunker than). Though what you’re referring to has so many names, I’m sure it’s in other phrases as well. Ha!

      That lecture series sounds interesting and I mean that sincerely. Often, we will be talking and one of us will use a well-worn phrase and I’ll usually try to trace it. Buck naked, for instance, the variations of where that originated from are numerous.

      How insightful Smak about what future generations will be musing over. Though I hope selfie, “at the end of the day,” and “clearly” will have exhausted themselves by then. Those are just a few I’m tired of hearing. Good to see you and thanks.


      Posted by Brigitte | February 20, 2015, 6:44 pm
  7. Very interesting post, Ms B. I do believe I’m thankful that love is blind( smile) and I love that you used mellifluous. I said ” over and out” to my Army Gal the other day and she snipped ” we don’t say that, you know” …errrr I just like saying that girlie.

    Posted by UpChuckingwords | February 20, 2015, 7:41 pm
  8. Sorry I’m so late here, Brigitte. It was a ski weekend and I wanted to have the time read your wonderful writing. Yes, coming from the South like you, I remember my parents and grandparents using phrases all the time. A few come to mind that I suspect you’ll recognize – “Hold your horses,” “Bless your heart,” and “Madder than a wet hen.” I still use “bless your heart” (or her heart or his heart) for a variety of purposes. Just seems to fit. Great post, my dear!

    Posted by Cathy Ulrich | February 23, 2015, 10:04 am
    • Cathy, you’re always welcome no matter how “late” you are. I recognize all of those and heard them over and over! I still use bless her heart/bless his heart. Have you noticed it can be used both nicely and not so nicely? Ha! When said in such a way, we know what meaning lies behind it. ;). Thanks my friend, always wonderful to hear from you.

      Posted by Brigitte | February 23, 2015, 12:08 pm
  9. I’ve never heard “drunk as Cooter Brown”. Good information to have! xo

    Posted by Maggie O'C | February 23, 2015, 2:17 pm
  10. I wish we’d get over the overuses of “everything being literally something.” 😉 I’d never heard of “drunk as Cooter Brown,” either, but did know of cooters being turtles. Probably through friends who did archaeology in the south….

    Posted by jmmcdowell | February 24, 2015, 7:12 pm
  11. My favorite Southern idioms are “bless her/his heart”, “over yonder”, and “fixin’ to”. Since moving out of the South, I’ve lost most of my accent and don’t use these phrases very often, but as soon as I get back at grandma’s, they’re right back in my wheelhouse.

    Posted by Erin E. | March 1, 2015, 2:16 pm
    • I still say bless her/his heart! ha! I mean it sometimes and sometimes it’s sarcastic. I know what you mean about getting back into the Southern thing. You can leave but when you come back, you once again slide right back into that sweet (and sometimes not so sweet) Southern thang. Thanks—so great to see you!

      Posted by Brigitte | March 2, 2015, 12:35 pm

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