Every day in conversations across the country, countless colloquial phrases that most of us have no idea what they mean can be heard--still we use them. This article looks at the origins of several adages, aphorisms, figures of speech, and other examples of linguistic idioms with afore unknown meaning.
In Part I of, "But, What Does that Mean," we explored the origins of a number of adages, aphorisms, and popular idioms that have been part of common vernacular for--well, who knows how long! In this installment, we'll get to the bottom of a number of other sayings that when given a second thought compel us to ask, "But, what does that mean?" In many cases, without knowing their origin, many such phrases actually make no logical sense at all!
One popular saying of recent decades is the phrase, "The proof is in the pudding." This adage was used in numerous ad campaigns to sell a variety of products and can still be heard in conversation across the country today. But what does it mean? And where did it originate? Well, my enquiries show that this phrase was actually the utterance of the illustrious Chinese-American detective, Charlie Chan during the solving of one of his more baffling murder cases. It seems that while paying a visit on Chan's #1 suspect, one Mr. White, his host served the famous criminologist bread pudding and English tea during which Chan observed to his Number-One-Son Lee Chan, "Look! Proof in pudding! Fat black worms in humble desert meant to poison honorable Chan! Must be murderer!" At the time, of course, raisins were as yet unknown in Hong King and Chan had mistakenly thought he'd uncovered a clumsy attempt to eliminate him from the case.
A popular saying of the 1960s--but can still be heard today--is the peculiar phrase, "a dollar to a donut." But what is it referring to? Well, it seems this whimsical little phrase actually dates back to 1936 and the famous Best-out-of-Three-Falls wrestling match between Betty Crocker and Aunt Jamima held at Madison Square Garden. As legend has it, while both women were fledgling bakers vying for public attention and popularity, Betty repeatedly laid claim to "Aunt" Jean Jamima's secret family baking recipes. Not one to take a family affront lightly, Jean challenged Betty to a winner-take-all wrestling match--for all the fame, fortune and perks that go with it--the loser packing up her baking pans and moving to parts unknown (Wait for it . . .) Quite naturally, the betting line at the sounding of the first round bell was "a dollar to a donut." Luckily for the public, the match ended in a draw!
While the term "couch potato" has been adopted in modern parlance to refer to someone who spends far too much time sitting on the couch--usually in front of the TV--the term originally referred to an experiment conducted by Dr. Margaret Woot of the University of Vienna who in 1947 set out to see if anything would grow in the dust and lint that collected under the cushions and in the cracks of her davenport. Far beyond her wildest expectations, Woot actually succeeded in growing a potato-like mutant vegetable, but the experiment then went terribly awry when the ravenous spud quickly grew to enormous proportions and devoured Woot and all of her lab animals before being caught and dissected--or diced, as the case may have been. (An interesting historical side-bar is that the now world-famous kids' toy Mr. Potato Head was actually modeled after Woot's hideous creation!)
In a recent episode of the Simpsons, Marge used one of the more colorful phrases referenced in everyday conversation, "bosoms 'til Tuesday." If you saw the episode, you may have asked yourself, 'Well, what does that mean'? Well, according to my intensive research, in the original--unedited--version of Cinderella, after receiving her gown and glass slippers, Cinderella then asked her fairy godmother for two more strategically-placed touches of her wand--just to seal the deal when her Prince Charming arrived with the glass slipper. Unfortunately for both Cinderella and her prince, like all her fairy godmother's spells, this too had a time limit! (Wonder if the prince felt deceived come Tuesday morning!)
While many of us apply a romantic connotation to the term "pitching woo," historical evidence indicates that the reference is actually related to the famous adventurer and world traveler Marco Polo (above left) during his historic visit to Mongolia and subsequent meeting with the infamous scourge, Genghis Khan. Bent on proving his manliness through a show of physical strength, Polo challenged Khan to a game he called "pitching Woo." Woo (pictured right) was the fattest man in all Mongolia and said to weigh over 400 lbs. While history doesn't record who won this historic match, many believe this test of strength then led to the popular phrase, "Don't get your balls in a tangle!"
Much in the same vein as reading entrails, a method of prognostication common to many cultures throughout the world including several African tribes, the reading of "poop" is widely practiced even today. The root of the phrase, "Give me the straight poop," is thought to have originated with a warrior of the Zulu tribe whose fecal deposits had repeatedly warned of impending death--indicated by large curved droppings. Pictured here, this modern-day auger is explaining the finer points of "poop reading" and has just interpreted this small straight one as a good omen; perhaps one indicating the depositer will never have to worry about constipation!
While the phrase "bend over backwards" has taken on a wholly figurative meaning in recent times, my research shows that it is actually a reference to man's third officially recognized sexual position (after doggie and missionary), as depicted on cave walls dating back to 35,000 BP--and which also seems to have made Oo-gle the world's first pin-up girl! As demonstrated above, this position had both its major advantages as well as disadvantages--which is why, perhaps, it didn't catch on and isn't commonly practived in bedrooms around the world today.
. . . And where exactly did the phrase "When pigs fly" originate? Well, you'll just have to stay tuned for installment III of "But What Does that Mean"! Don't go away!!!