Word Matters Podcast

Tracing the Origins of Famous Phrases

Word Matters, Episode 33

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We're catching up on our email! This week, we answer some listener questions about the murky origins of two famous idioms.

Download the episode here.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: some very good questions. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. A peek in our inbox reveals what curious and insightful listeners we have. We're happy to address some of the queries you brought to us. Here's Ammon Shea.

Ammon Shea: This week in our listener mailbag, we have a brace of questions about expressions or idioms. The first of which is from Mark Walker, who writes, "Hello, I'm trying to find the origin of the idiom he couldn't fight his way out of a paper bag." And Mark said that he had done a little digging and thought this was originally an Australian phrase, although it also could have been in a comic strip, early 20th century, a comic writer named Ted Dorgan. And additionally, Anna Hamann writes in and has a question on the history of the phrase cross my heart and hope to die, because she always feels slightly uneasy saying this.

In the first question, Mark is correct. As far as our records indicate, this is of Australian origin. Not that I've ever associated it with Australia, but the earliest use that we've seen of this expression comes around 1902 in the Armadale Chronicle, an Australian newspaper. "A little man, inflamed by wine and the geniality of the season of peace on earth and goodwill to men, wanted to fight a good natured giant. 'Fight, you little insect,' said the man of inches, 'why you could not fight your way out of a paper bag.'" I have to say, I like that lost expression, "the man of inches" for a tall man. I'm not familiar with that. Are any of you?

Peter Sokolowski: No.

Emily Brewster: I love that this paper bag image is this person is Lilliputian, right, fighting your way out of a literal paper bag.

Ammon Shea: Right. We can't really explain the history of idioms or idia very often, but I'd never thought of this as associated with Australia in any way. Do they have stronger paper bags in Australia? Was this at one point an actual measure of strength? Is it like today's fighting your way out of an NPR tote bag?

Emily Brewster: And how old are paper bags?

Peter Sokolowski: Right. I was going to say the idea of a disposable paper bag is probably fairly recent. This is early 20th century?

Ammon Shea: This is yeah, 1902 and 1904, our two first citations.

Peter Sokolowski: That's what I mean by recent, in terms of language, yeah.

Ammon Shea: There was, I thought it was early 20th century, I remember reading the patent at one time, as one does, there was a patent issued for the first machine that would make paper bags. And they did exist prior to that. I mean, you could obviously have paper bags, but once the method for constructing them quickly was patented, then is when they really became the mainstay of supermarkets, things like that.

Emily Brewster: Now, how does the cartoonist Tad Dorgan, is that the name?

Ammon Shea: Tad Dorgan. He was a notable boxing writer and cartoonist. His first cartoon started in, I think, San Francisco in 1902 and he for the next several decades did a lot of cartoons. And he was widely credited with having introduced, although subsequent it turns out that he really just popularized a number of well-known slang expressions in the early 20th century, such as the bee's knees, the cat's pajamas, 23 skidoo.

Peter Sokolowski: And these are in cartoons?

Ammon Shea: Well, he used them in cartoons, also in writing about boxing. And he did have his ear really finely tuned to the slang of the day. His obituary in the New York Times credited him with having introduced a lot of these to the language. But again, as is so often the case, we find that people who were thought to have coined expressions or words, merely turned out to have popularized them, and they were in some other way already extant.

Peter Sokolowski: It makes me think of something. Emily and Neil will remember this. In the old days, there used to be a little tray near the coffee machine at Merriam-Webster where you would put your citations, where you would put things that you've marked up, where you've noticed words and underlined them. And you would sometimes see little comic strips, and comic strips were viewed as being a kind of relaxed language, a place where you might find records of spoken language before a more formal source like the New York Times or something. So the fact is I know that our forebears at Merriam-Webster definitely read cartoons and comic strips for this purpose to get spoken idioms because they're often earlier found there than in scripts or in newspapers.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that's so fascinating about tracking the history of language is, as you pointed out, for most of English language, for most of our history, the spoken form of a word precedes the written form. That is changing now in a weird way. Suddenly, the natural documentation of language is getting flipped because words like LOL are very much appearing in print in some format before they appear spoken.

Neil Serven: And a process of editing isn't happening anymore. People are just going straight to Twitter with their thoughts and they're just typing them as they think of them. And so sometimes they don't need to test it out in a conversation before they use it.

Ammon Shea: Good point.

Neil Serven: Which was what used to happen. And so it is interesting, and you're right, that there's the idea of spoken language being the entry way into all language is not happening anymore.

Ammon Shea: Right. But it definitely used to be, which is why, as Peter said, cartoons were such a great source for early use of language because it was a very colloquial environment for language. It was colloquialisms writ large, so to speak. And another place where that used to come up was equine onomastic, so oddly enough. Horse racing names. In the 19th century, a lot of times I remember coming across, not myself in the 19th century, but in looking for late 19th century, early 20th century slang words, often finding them in horse racing names. And it was because if you've ever followed the ponies, as they say, you see that there's a lot of ludic and playful tendency in naming horses. And a lot of times, words which were seemingly in spoken use but had not yet become normalized enough to appear in edited prose, would start to crop up in horse racing names. And it's difficult because, is this evidence? We don't know. There's no intent attached to it aside of a playfulness. So we don't know in what sense, say, Bowery boy or boho is being used if it's a horse name. But it is some evidence of its existence at that time.

Neil Serven: Boxing and horse racing both brought in a lot of colorful language. A lot of colorful idioms. Think of boxing as the sweet science, saved by the bell, down for the count, on the ropes is another phrase about boxing. With horse racing, you've got down the home stretch-

Ammon Shea: Down to the wire.

Neil Serven: Yeah. Down to the wire. A lot of these idioms that survive, and sportswriters, I've mentioned before, they have always liked to try to be colorful with their language. And part of that reason is because they're writing about the same thing every day pretty much. They want to change it up. It's natural. They want to change it up and make it sound interesting. And so it doesn't surprise me that writers about boxing and horse racing in particular took to such colorful language and then have tried to elasticize it in a way, and that it's survived and survived in our conversations.

Emily Brewster: And this brings us right back to fight your way out of a paper bag, which is pugilistic apparently.

Ammon Shea: Sure. Although it doesn't seem to be connected to boxing itself.

Emily Brewster: Right. I'm using pugilistic loosely, I guess.

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You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster and I'm crossing my heart that we'll be back after the break with another of your questions. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

(music break)

Ammon Shea: Anna Hamann has been very, very patient throughout all this, if she is in fact, still listening for the answer to her question.

Neil Serven: Oh, right, we have a second question.

Ammon Shea: Crossing her heart and hoping to die. It appears that this is, it's a very literal sort of thing. It's just making the sign of the cross, which has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years. The earliest evidence that we have of cross my heart and hope to die is late 19th century. Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine is a use. "Now cross your heart and hope to die, you won't let on to a living soul. So the revelation is prefaced." And that doesn't mean that people weren't making this gesture or even talking about this gesture before it. But again, it's coming up first in a quote in a story. So it's kind of a simulacrum of colloquial speech there, even though it's being written down.

What this brought up for me, though, the question is not just, when did we start saying cross your heart and hope to die, but that really brings up the question of, when did we start saying the tertiary part of this phrase, which is, stick a needle in your eye.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Ammon Shea: Because I mean, that's what everybody will say. If you give a pregnant pause to somebody who was once a child and you say cross your heart, hope to die, and they're going to always fill it in with, stick a needle in your eye. And oddly enough, the earliest citation we have for that is just about a hundred years old. It comes up in Kansas newspaper, the Cheptopa Advance in 1920. They wrote a column about things like this and said, "Another thing we would like some student of childhood to explain are two hopefuls, have a habit when they wish to impress a great truth upon us by saying, 'Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.' We see some light on the first two clauses of that couplet, but why the painful operation of sticking a needle in the eye?" I think it's kind of curious that they're even asking this. I mean, it's obvious why we don't say cross my heart and hope to die, cut off my thumb at the first knuckle with a rusty butter knife. It's because that doesn't rhyme. It's got no joie de vie to it. It's got no flow.

Emily Brewster: And it sounds like something that an elementary school kid would just come up with and tack onto something. You take this kind of sacred idea, if I fail in some way, may I die. I'm crossing my heart and I'm making this religious sign and saying that, I mean this so sincerely. And then the kids tack on "and stick a needle in my eye."

Neil Serven: Right. The idea of being punished with blindness is like got an eye for an eye reference to that. It's like the idea that you would be willing to lose your own vision if you were to give this secret up. It goes with that fondness for childhood exaggeration, and I think that's why it works.

Peter Sokolowski: There's something uncomfortable about idioms for lexicographers. And it's perfectly reasonable. I understand why people ask us for the origin of such an idiom. The elephant in the room, or I threw my hat in the ring or something. Some of them have very transparent and very well known origins. And some of them don't. And it's different from a word's origin. A word's origin, which is what we normally do, is something we can trace like a detective. And usually in the written record, find at least where it began. With idioms, we can find that first usage or early usage, but we don't always know the logic behind those statements. So in other words, there's a difference between an idiom. Like with cross my heart, it makes me think of the term crisscross, which actually comes from Christ cross, which was simply the mark of a cross. That term Christ cross is obsolete, probably because people didn't want to swear in early English and early modern period. And it just became crisscross, which we don't necessarily associate. It seems like to me, an etymology that's hiding in plain sight. Once you see that, oh, that explains everything. But with idioms, it's hard to get that origin story.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. Idioms are kind of quicksand in that way. One of my favorite things idiom-related, which I'm sure we've talked about here before is Charles McKay writing in Lost beauties of the English Language. He wrote about this great period in London, the 1850s, where there were these expressions and it was, my, what a shocking bad hat, and has your mother lost her mangle? that became incredibly popular for a year or two. And if you go back and look through newspaper archives, you will see them there. And nobody has any idea what the hell they were talking about. Has your mother lost her mangle? Well, a mangle is a kind of clothing thing that you roll clothes through and it presses moisture out of them or something like that. That's as far as we've got. And my, what a shocking bad hat. It just ends right there. And then people just stop saying it. And it's only existed in people writing about language subsequently saying, "What was going on in London in 1852?" Or whenever it was. And we have not worked out, and I don't think we ever will, what was going on with this particular idiom, why it started and why it ended.

Peter Sokolowski: And often the meaning of it, which we retain, is so disconnected from that origin that we have no idea. I think it was our friend Ben Zimmer, who said that idioms are kind of like barnacles on the ship of language, because it's still moving in the water. We know we still have it to use. We have no idea what the original animal looked like, or what its purpose was, or even where it came from.

Ammon Shea: That'll teach you two people to write letters to the mailbag. You get way more information than you'd ask for.

Emily Brewster: Thank you to all who have written to us. If you have a question or a comment, email us wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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