The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases

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Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
Express/Express/Getty Images

The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

chimp eating banana
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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

Uitwaaien, or Outblowing, Is the Dutch Cure for the Winter Blues

sergio_kumer/iStock via Getty Images
sergio_kumer/iStock via Getty Images

Hygge, a Danish philosophy that's recently caught on in the U.S., is all about feeling cozy and relaxed indoors when the weather is cold outside. Uitwaaien takes the opposite approach to winter. Dutch for "outblowing," uitwaaien involves doing physical activity, like going for a brisk jog, in chilly, windy weather. It may lack the warmth and fuzziness of hygge, but many Dutch people swear by its energizing effects.

The practice known as uitwaaien has roots in the Netherlands going back at least a century, Nautilus reports. The name comes from the concept of replacing "bad air" with "good air." While there may not be a lot of science to support that idea, exercise does have scientifically proven benefits, such as boosting energy and lowering stress. And while spending 30 minutes on a treadmill in a stuffy gym can leave you feeling sweaty and gross, running outside in the wind can be refreshing and exhilarating.

There's another benefit of uitwaaien: It's an excuse to get outside during a time of year when you'd normally be cooped up indoors. Research shows that being out in nature can enhance our creativity, sharpen our focus, and help us feel more relaxed. And if temperatures are too low for your comfort, a few minutes of cardio is the best way to warm up quickly.

Still need motivation to exercise in the cold? Think of it this way: Every minute of uitwaaien you take part in will make your hygge time that much sweeter. Here are some ways to practice hygge in your home this season.

[h/t Nautilus]

What's the Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes?

Julia_Sudnitskaya/iStock via Getty Images
Julia_Sudnitskaya/iStock via Getty Images

This Thanksgiving, families across the country will enjoy a traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes ... or are they yams? Discussions on the proper name for the orange starchy stuff on your table can get more heated than arguments about topping them with marshmallows. But there's an easy way to tell the difference between sweet potatoes and yams: If you picked up the tuber from a typical American grocery store, it's probably a sweet potato.

So what's a sweet potato?

Sweet potato and yam aren't just different names for the same thing: The two produce items belong to their own separate botanical categories. Sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family. Regular potatoes like russets, meanwhile, are considered part of the nightshade family, which means that sweet potatoes aren't actually potatoes at all.

Almost all of the foods most Americans think of as yams are really sweet potatoes. The root vegetable typically has brown or reddish skin with a starchy inside that's orange (though it can also be white or purple). It's sold in most supermarkets in the country and used to make sweet potato fries, sweet potato pie, and the sweet potato casserole you have at Thanksgiving.

Then what's a yam?

Yams.
Yams.
bonchan/iStock via Getty Images

Yams are a different beast altogether. They are more closely related to lilies and grasses and mostly grow in tropical environments. The skin is more rough and bark-like than what you'd see on a sweet potato, and the inside is usually white or yellowish—not orange.

They're a common ingredient in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Because the inside of a yam is less moist than the inside of a sweet potato, they require more fat to make them soft and creamy. They're also less sweet than their orange-hued counterparts. In many regions in the U.S., yams aren't sold outside of international grocery stores.

Where did the mix-up come from?

Also sweet potatoes.
Also sweet potatoes.
Kateryna Bibro/iStock via Getty Images

So if yams and sweet potatoes are two totally different vegetables that don't look or taste that similar, why are their names used interchangeably in the U.S.? You can blame the food industry. For years, "firm" sweet potatoes, which have brown skin and whitish flesh, were the only sweet potatoes grown in the U.S. In the early 20th century, "soft" sweet potatoes, which have reddish skin and deep-orange flesh, entered the scene. Farmers needed a way to distinguish the two varieties, so soft sweet potatoes became yams.

Nearly a century later, the misnomer shows no signs of disappearing. Many American supermarkets still call their orange-fleshed sweet potatoes yams and their white-fleshed ones sweet potatoes, even though both items are sweet potatoes. But this isn't a strict rule, and stores often swap the names and make things even more confusing for shoppers. So the next time you're shopping for a recipe that calls for sweet potatoes, learn to identify them by sight rather than the name on the label.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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