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.
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
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?
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:
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.
Do you have some favorite phrases? Phrases you hate? Did you hear unique phrases from your parents or grandparents when you were growing up?
Photo creds: Red Herring, Cooter Brown, Woman