7 Everyday Phrases That Have Been Rephrased

EasternLightcraft/iStock via Getty Images
EasternLightcraft/iStock via Getty Images

It’s by no means rare for words to rework and reshape themselves over time, to the extent that they can end up with vastly different meanings and spellings compared to their original forms. So awful once meant the same as wonderful. A bully was originally a friend or a close companion. Jargon was once upon a time another word for the chattering of birds. And while adders and umpires were originally nadders and numpires, nicknames were eke-names. When changes like these happen to entire sayings and expressions, however, the differences between the original form and the form that eventually catches on can be even more surprising.

1. Cloud Nine

People who are extremely happy have been “on cloud nine” since the mid-1900s, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it wasn’t originally cloud nine that was the seat of all contentment, but “cloud seven.” The phrase itself probably began life as a spin off from the much earlier phrase seventh heaven (which dates back to the 14th century), but records have also been unearthed that mention everywhere from cloud eight to cloud 31. Why is it only cloud nine that’s survived today? No one really knows.

2. An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

The old adage that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” was originally a full-blown proverb: the Oxford English Dictionary has traced “eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread” back as far as 1866, but it was probably in use locally long before then. By the later 19th century, this had shortened to “an apple a day, no doctor to pay,” before the snappier version we know and use today emerged in the 1910s.

3. Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride

We know the phrase “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” thanks to a 1925 advertisement for Listerine mouthwash. It wasn’t always as pessimistic as it is today, however: The original phrasing was “often a bridesmaid” rather than “always.” There’s hope for everyone, it seems, so long as your breath doesn’t smell.

4. Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law

Possession hasn’t always been proverbially “nine-tenths of the law”—back in the 17th century, the phrase “11 points of the law” was just as common. No one is entirely sure what these “11 points” or “nine-tenths” initially were, but given what the phrase implies it’s presumed that it might once have been necessary to meet a certain number of criteria in order to legally prove your ownership of some disputed property, and it’s these criteria that were the original “11 points” involved.

5. Shoot Your Cuffs

If you “shoot your cuffs,” then you pull your shirt sleeves down so that they can be seen sticking out of your coat or jacket sleeves, although the phrase can also be used figuratively to mean “to smarten yourself up.” It dates back to the mid-19th century, when the original wording was “shoot your linen”; the more specific mention of “cuffs” emerged in the early 1900s.

6. Don’t Lose the Ship (for a Halfpennyworth of Tar)

Or, as you might also know it, “don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.” In either case, back in the 17th century the original phrasing was "lose the sheep" not the "ship," which is presumed to refer to the use of tar either to mark ownership of the sheep in a flock, or to cover up sores on the skin of livestock to stop them from being bothered by flies. But because ship and sheep sound so similar (and because tar can also be used to seal the timbers in leaking ships), the two forms quickly became confused and today the “ship” form has become the standard.

7. Gild the Lily

Along with being “in a pickle,” a “foregone conclusion,” and “what the dickens,” we owe the expression to "gild the lily" to William Shakespeare, who coined it in King John in 1595. You won’t find the form we use today in Shakespeare’s original speech, however:

Therefore, to be possessed with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,

To throw a perfume on the violet,

To smooth the ice, or add another hue

Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light

To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

King John (Act 4, Scene 2)

Included in a list of metaphorically unnecessary acts, the original phrase was “paint the lily,” while it was the “refined gold” that was being needlessly gilt (i.e. coated in gold). When this quotation became proverbial in the early 20th century, Shakespeare’s original wording remained intact (the OED has found a reference to “painting the lily” as recently in 1968 in the Encyclopedia Britannica), but soon the conflated form “gild the lily” became the standard and has remained in use every since.

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

iStock
iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

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