Category Archives: Literally

The Truth About False Friends

350px-DutchEnglishfalsefriendWhile recently reading Men’s Journal (or Men’s Health, I can never keep them straight), I came across an article about taking on a bird as a pet. This seems less like something the readers of MJ (or MH) would actually want and more like something that got pitched and then written because something else fell through. Regardless. I started contemplating what life with a bird would be like.

This led to some Googling and craigslist searching. (Warning: Don’t search on craigslist for pets because your heart will break.) And that led me to investigating parakeets, which eventually led me to the discovery of the concept of “false friends.”

False friends are a little bit like folk etymology, except this time it’s word in two different languages that look or sound similar and mean very different things. Parakeet means parakeet in English, but peroquet means parrot in French. The best example is probably the one in the photo (the child is saying, “Mama, that one, that one, that one!”), but aren’t words fun?

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Real Talk: Take a Powder

“Hey, smart guy. Why don’t you take a powder and leave the adults alone?”

So why does “take a powder” mean to leave? No one knows! Yes, it’s going to be one of those entries in which I claim to answer a burning questions (for no one) but actually just shrug my shoulders and list a bunch of theories. Ladies’ choice!

Take a powder could come from the routine exclamation from doctors to patients—take a laxative powder for what ails you. Maybe! Or it could be a shortened version of, “I’m going to the powder room to powder my nose.”

In either case, it definitely originated in the 1920s and means to make a hurried—but discreet!—exit.

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Real Talk: Jeepers Creepers

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 09.54.29While watching the motion picture Jeepers Creepers, I went searching for the titular song. What I found instead was far better!

I discovered “minced oaths.”

Now, you’re probably familiar with many minced oaths. “Dang” is a minced oath for “damn.” Heck. Gosh. You’ve heard them all your life. But did you know that “jeepers creepers” is a minced version of “Jesus Christ”? Or that “zounds!” is minced for “wounds,” referring to the marks on Christ’s body? (Kind of a forgotten version of the Brits’ beloved “bloody.”) In fact, there were a lot of swear words that referred to Christ, the nails on the cross, and the crucifixion in general. I guess in the 17th century if you really wanted to make a point, you invoked the dead savior. That still holds true, I guess!

(By the way, a minced oath for “cunt” is “berk” because “cunt” rhymes with England’s foxhound pack Berkeley Hunt and that got abbreviated to “berk” in the 1930s Language is fun!)

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Real Talk: To a ‘T’

Shirtless swimsuit lorenzo lamas“Lorenzo Lamas suits me a to T.”

There are two different accounts of the origins of the phrase “Suits me to a T.” The more common one involves a draftsman’s T-square instrument, which perfectly measures stuff, or something; but the other involves “tittle,” which basically means a tiny detail. “To a tittle” was in use nearly 100 years before “to a T,” and because it involves a now-archaic word, I’m all for it! Tittle it is!

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Real Talk: Scuttlebutt

tumblr_lsju0tpJ9z1ql14hlo1_500“My dear, have you heard the latest scuttlebutt about Cary Grant and Randolph Scott?”

An English teacher in high school once said, “If you know the Bible, Greek mythology, and Shakespeare, you’re set up to get most of the allusions in the world.” I would add that if you know Shakespeare and nautical slang, you’re set up to understand nonsense words we use without thinking twice.

Scuttlebutt, for instance. A scuttlebutt was originally a drinking barrel on a ship, and it became synonymous with gossip because the men would gather there and chatter as they quenched their thirst. That’s right: Sailors had water cooler talk! Probably will-they-or-won’t-they talk about  Captain Ahab and that whale.

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Real Talk: In the Hopper

House_Hopper“What a great suggestion for a Real Talk installment! I’ll put it in the hopper.”

Suggested by faithful reader Mark, “put it in the hopper” is an annoyingly vague expression. Not the meaning; the meaning is pretty clearly “It’s on my list!” But then bills waiting to be signed sit in the House of Representative’s House Clerk’s box called “the hopper,” which may or may not have led to the present usage? And then there’s the grain hopper, where harvested grain sits, waiting to be shipped off. I would imagine the House stole the therm from farmers, but why is an entirely different question.

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Real Talk: Shit From Shinola

shoe-day-04-01-1946-088-M5“Why would I listen to you? You don’t know shit from Shinola.”

Sometimes the most obvious explanation is the correct one. But before confirming your suspicions that there’s very little to this saying, I’d like to say that this phrase exemplifies the loftier goals of KCDFYS: Taking a second look at what we take for granted or don’t think twice about.

Anyway, yes: If you thought “shit from Shinola” meant that Shinola shoe polish (1907-1960) had a color and texture “not unlike feces,” as Wikipedia puts it, you are correct! What you may not know is that this became popular during WWII. Why? Wartime makes intelligence more important, I guess.


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Real Talk: Willy-Nilly

willy-nilly-image-smallReal Talk, in which I explain why we say weird things like “plugged nickel” or “cat’s pajamas.” Also, a place where I can send my boyfriend when he asks the meaning of weird phrases like “plugged nickel” or “cat’s pajamas.”

“I unearth the etymology of phrases willy-nilly!”

It seems that willy-nilly, as we know it, is a recent phenomenon. The original meaning of the contraction “will ye, nill ye” was, basically, “Whether you want to or not.” The haphazard meaning we know and love came much later.

Fun fact: “Shilly shally” seems to be related to willy-nilly, eventually shouldering the burden of indicating dithering. It basically means “Shall I, shall I not?” with “shilly” added because people just love to add rhyming words to phrases. Okey-dokey?

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Real Talk: Cooter Brown

Cooter BrownsReal Talk, in which I explain why we say weird things like “plugged nickel” or “cat’s pajamas.” Also, a place where I can send my boyfriend when he asks the meaning of weird phrases like “plugged nickel” or “cat’s pajamas.”

“Let’s drive down to the lake and just git drunker ‘n Cooter Brown!”

There are a few explanations for who Cooter Brown was and why he was so drunk, but we’ll go for the one I prefer: Cooter Brown lived on the Mason-Dixon line. With family on both the Union and Confederate sides, he couldn’t bear the thought of being drafted to kill blood relations, so he vowed to stay drunk for the war’s duration. Did he? What did he drink? Did he die of alcohol poisoning before the war ended? Was his family disgusted? Did small local boys throw things at him and jeer? I guess we’ll never know.

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Real Talk: Doldrums

guide_html_10b3259cReal Talk, in which I explain why we say weird things like “plugged nickel” or “cat’s pajamas.” Also, a place where I can send my boyfriend when he asks the meaning of weird phrases like “plugged nickel” or “cat’s pajamas.”

“I was in the doldrums last week, so I went home and shaved my head and felt better.”

The doldrums are literally the place in the world’s seas where there is so little wind that movement is almost impossible (near the equator, of course). But only because the doldrums first meant to be sluggish. Yes! Though many people say that the phrase came from the “region of calm winds,” the opposite is in fact the case. “Doldrum” first came to life from the word “dull,” to indicate a fit of dullness. Sailing the doldrums just came out of that.

The more you know!

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