Tag Archive for phrase

Why Men Paint the Town Red

One theory is that the phrase “paint the town red,” meaning to celebrate wildly, often with drinking involved, came from an incident in 1837. That’s when the Marquis of Waterford, known for his love of drink and mischief, took his friends on a wild night on the English town of Melton Mowbray. The night included vandalism on homes and public buildings, including painting a tollgate, the statue of a swan, and people’s doors red. They did compensate their victims later on, though.

Another, more American, possibility is that, during the Wild West era, men visited brothels, where they drank heavily, raised hell, and carried on activities the brothels were set up for. They did this so often that they were acting as though the whole town was one large red-light district.

If either is true (or both), the phrase grew out of men acting like, er, donkeys.

Make it Over the Hump

Happy “hump day”!  And keep your mind out of the gutter.  Every Wednesday is a red-letter day because we’re over the “hump” of the work week. The phrase “over the hump” originated in WWII and referred to the hard, dangerous flight of supplies over the Himalayan Mountains. Eventually the phrase referred to anything that was particularly difficult. Since at least the 1980s it came to mean you made it to noon on the middle day of the work week, so you’re on your way to your weekend. The rest of the week would be good. Thursday was usually payday, and Friday was the last working day of the week.  After lunch today, enjoy riding the hum down to a relaxing weekend.

Wednesday is a Red-Letter Day

It’s been awhile since I’ve inflicted what I think is an interesting phrase-derivation on you.  Today I offer “Red-letter day,” which, of course, is a day of special importance or significance.

The phrase really was begun in church, and not because some minister saw an overly packed church on a day other than Christmas or Easter.  Actually, it comes from the days when dates of a church festival would be marked in red on its calendars.  The first mention in America was in the early 1700s, when “red-letter day” was used in the diary of one Sarah Knight.  Way before that, though, William Caxtyon used it in The boke of Eneydos (translated and printed in 1490).

In 1549 the first Book of Common Prayer had a section with a calendar of holy days.  These holy days were emphasized by being printed in red ink.  In other words, those were “red-letter days.”

Now you know–whether you wanted to or not….

Happy “hump day,” by the way.  And keep your mind out of the gutter.  Every Wednesday is a red-letter day because we’re over the “hump” of the work week.



Rolling Balls, Politics, and Interesting Americana

Here’s a phrase most of us use: ““Keep the ball rolling,” meaning to keep an activity going, to keep people enthusiastic about it.  It has an interesting history, especially in politics.

That’s what the Presidential candidates are trying to do.  “Keep the ball rolling” is an old American phrase that originated during the 1840 election–a contest between incumbent President Martin Van Buren and Whig candidates Martin Van Buren and war-hero Gen. William Harrison.  That was the election that historians say began all the hoop-la of campaigning, like publicity stunts, songs, and slogans.  In fact, historians say that’s when the first campaign slogan was born: “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.”

So what does that have to do with our phrase “keep the ball rolling”?  Here are some of the song’s lyrics: “Don’t you hear from every quarter, quarter, quarter,/Good news and true,/That swift the ball is rolling on/For Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”

PLUS, the Harrison camp referred to “Victory Balls,” referring not to formal dances but to the 10′ diameter balls made of tin and leather that they rolled from one campaign rally to the next one, where supporters were urged to push the balls to the next rally…to “keep the ball rolling.”

I have to admit, right now, with all the political rhetoric and negativity, I’d very much like to let the air out of all the candidates’ rolling balls!



Dead Metaphor or Thoughtless Cruelty?

We often condone cruelty to animals without even realizing it.  Consider some of the dead metaphors we use, that is, expressions we use so often that eventually we no longer think about their origin or literal meaning.  If we actually pictured the phrases in our minds, how comfortable would we be using them?

Here are some examples:

“Didn’t have a dog in that fight” and “Dog-eat-dog world” (legitimizing bloody dog fights and setting one dog on another)

“Kill two birds with one stone” (most likely sling-shot hunting of birds, for sport or “fun”)

“Cat’s out of the bag”  (practice of putting cats or kittens into bags for drowning)

“A real cat fight” (joking description of two women fighting)

“Bull pen” (cramped space where bulls are held just before being released to be part of a bull fight that ends up with the death of the animal)

Maybe these are just words.  On the other hand, maybe our unthinking words reflect our acceptance of the unacceptable–animal cruelty.

[By the way, April is ASPCA’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals month.]

Origin of “Going Postal”–Stay Calm, Now

[Don’t go postal on me–I haven’t inflicted one of my phrase-origins on you in quite awhile.]

If your friend is so stressed out that he suddenly flies into a violent rage, you accuse him of “going postal.”  What does the post office have to do with it?  A lot.

In the late 1980s, there were several deadly events involving U.S. Postal Service workers.  In 1986, the first event, an Oklahoma postal worker shot 20 fellow workers, killing 14; then he shot himself.  After that, and up to 1997 there were 20 other similar events, killing 40 people, including some regular citizens.  In the middle of this, in Dec. of 1993, The St. Petersburg Times reported that some people were referring to what was happening as “going postal.”  Thus, the term was born.

By the way, long-term studies indicate that working for the Postal Service isn’t any more or less stressful than most jobs.


You Can’t “Turn a Blind Eye” to This

A bit of language trivia for you today: the origin of the phrase to “Turn a blind eye.” It means, of course, to ignore something, to refuse to acknowledge that something exists or is happening.

This goes back to the early 1800s, to Horatio Nelson, a British naval hero, as he fought the Battle of Copenhagen.  His ships, facing a much larger Danish/Norwegian fleet, had little hope of victory.  His superior officer sent a signal for him to retreat, but Nelson didn’t want to.  He put his telescope up to his blind eye, stated that he didn’t see the signal, carried on the battle—and won!  Okay.  Some historians say this is just a myth; yet “turn a blind eye” is still with us today.



“Reading the Riot Act”

I’m tired of politics and in the mood for a little phrase-history today.  One that the older generation still uses is to “read the riot act,” often to their children, and always in a gruff, threatening voice.  It means, of course,  to warn sternly about misconduct.  So, where does this odd phrase come from?

Actually, it goes back to 18th century England.  If a group of at least twelve people were misbehaving, a magistrate could read them a proclamation stating that they had an hour to disperse and anyone failing to do so would be arrested.  Punishment was harsh for those die-hards who stuck around.

[For my new readers, as an ex-teacher, I get a periodic urge to instruct.]