Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Warm the cockles of my heart

My first question about this phrase is: what the heck are cockles? My second: how did this reference to high-temperature heart cockles come about anyway?

Let's find out....

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A quick hop over to the Grammarist yields the following:

To warm the cockles of one’s heart means to bestow a feeling of contentment, to kindle warm feelings in a person, especially of happiness and felicity. The term warm the cockles of one’s heart dates back to the mid-1600s, a time when scientific texts were often written in Latin. The Latin term cochleae cordis means ventricles of the heart, and most probably, the word cochleae was corrupted as cockles. This may have been a mistake made by the less learned, or a deliberate joke. Add in the fact that the bivalve mollusk known as a cockle is shaped somewhat like a heart, and the idea of the phrase cockles of one’s heart being more or less a joke gains credence.

My copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer agrees with the Latin origin for cockles and when the phrase first came into use. World Wide Words has its own approach, starting its entry with:

Something that warms the cockles of one’s heart induces a glow of pleasure, sympathy, affection, or some such similar emotion. What gets warmed is the innermost part of one’s being. It’s not that surprising that it should be associated with the heart, that being the presumed seat of the emotions for most people. 

Awww. I like that! A very heart-warming observation. WWW then adds, "But what are the cockles? We’re not sure."

Uh-oh. "Not sure" is not what I wanted to read.

WWW offers the same possible explanations as Grammarist, with some additional fillips, including the fact that the earliest form of the saying was rejoice the cockles of one’s heart. The WWW exploration of the idiom concludes by noting that cochlea in Latin is the word for a snail and suggesting that perhaps we should really be speaking of warming the snails of one’s heart.

Snails?? Uh, no. Just... no.

A case of overheated cockles?
Image by 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Bunkum/Bunk

If something is described as "so much bunkum" (or conversely, if someone says, "What a load of bunk!"), nonsense is the order of the day. It turns out that the expression has a 19th century history. Which of course, I will share with you below....

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The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say about bunkum/bunk:

BUNK: "nonsense," 1900, short for bunkum, phonetic spelling of Buncombe, a county in North Carolina. The usual story (attested by 1841) of its origin is this: At the close of the protracted Missouri statehood debates in the U.S. Congress, supposedly on Feb. 25, 1820, North Carolina Rep. Felix Walker (1753-1828) began what promised to be a "long, dull, irrelevant speech," and he resisted calls to cut it short by saying he was bound to say something that could appear in the newspapers in the home district and prove he was on the job. "I shall not be speaking to the House," he confessed, "but to Buncombe." Thus Bunkum has been American English slang for "nonsense" since 1841 (it is attested from 1838 as generic for "a U.S. Representative's home district").

Grammarist, Idiom Origins, Collins Dictionary, and others agree with the above. But hey! A discussion of an interesting (fanciful!) alternative history of this word's origin appears in a 2006 post on the Language Log of University of Pennsylvania. The post is titled The Bunkum of the "Bunkum of Bunkum."  Fun to read, but... beware!... because.... bunkum!

Take note: Before 1900, it's bunkum, not bunk...
Image by Prawny from Pixabay

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Cry Uncle!

 How did Cry uncle! come to describe begging for mercy or waving the white flag? Why not cry (or say) brother? or aunt? or....?? And (my ever-present question for idioms and slang) when did it first come into common use?

Let's see if the internet has an answer or two.... 

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.. and of course, being the internet, it does!

Over at World Wide Words, a post on the origin of this idiom starts with "It’s always the shortest questions that take the longest to answer" and continues:

There has been a lot of speculation about this idiom. I am now able, as a result of help from several sources, to provide a clear pointer to where it comes from.

WWW notes that the earliest examples—dating from 1891 to about 1907— appear in the form of jokes. Here is one from the October 9, 1891 issue of the Iowa Citizen:

A gentleman was boasting that his parrot would repeat anything he told him. For example, he told him several times, before some friends, to say “Uncle,” but the parrot would not repeat it. In anger he seized the bird, and half-twisting his neck, said: “Say ‘uncle,’ you beggar!” and threw him into the fowl pen, in which he had ten prize fowls. Shortly afterward, thinking he had killed the parrot, he went to the pen. To his surprise he found nine of the fowls dead on the floor with their necks wrung, and the parrot standing on the tenth twisting his neck and screaming: “Say ‘uncle,’ you beggar! say uncle.’”

However, this doesn't answer the question as to why "uncle" is invoked. Ah, but the never next paragraph goes into that:

Later versions make the reason for choosing uncle as the key word clearer by starting the story “A man whose niece had coaxed him to buy her a parrot succeeded in getting a bird that was warranted a good talker.”

The post is a good one, and goes into some similarities/congruences between U.S. English and British English regarding this idiom.

The Facts on the File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (Fourth Edition, 2008) by Robert Hendrickson puts the more abbreviated uncle! in common use in the early 20th century, adding, "Apparently it is of schoolboy origin, at least it is most used by schoolboys when fighting, especially when one has another pinned helplessly on the ground... Why uncle was chosen by kids is anybody's guess..."

But wait! The Word Detective opines that cry uncle has roots back to the Roman Empire (!!):

...Roman children, when beset by a bully, would be forced to say "Patrue, mi Patruissimo," or "Uncle, my best Uncle," in order to surrender and be freed. As to precisely "why" bullies force their victims to "cry uncle," opinions vary. It may be that the ritual is simply a way of making the victim call out for help from a grownup, thus proving his or her helplessness. Alternatively, it may have started as a way of forcing the victim to grant the bully a title of respect -- in Roman times, your father's brother was accorded nearly the same power and status as your father. The form of "uncle" used in the Latin phrase ("patrue") tends to support this theory, inasmuch as it specifically denoted your paternal uncle, as opposed to the brother of your mother ("avunculus"), who occupied a somewhat lower rung in patrilineal Roman society.  

Now that's a plot twist I did not expect in my investigation of this phrase...

A little hard to tell who might be crying uncle here.
A Man Interfering in a Street Fight, from Images of Spain Album (F), 82, (ca 1812-20) by Francisco de Goya
This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90333085


**** A tip o' the hat to amazing author and dear friend Camille Minichino who suggested this Slang-o-rama phrase!****

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Over a barrel

When you find yourself over a barrel, it's not pleasant situation, that's for sure. But just where did this phrase come from, and how long ago? I'm rolling up my Slang-o-rama sleeves and heeeere we go...

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Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary's definition is "at a disadvantage : in an awkward position." The Grammarist says that to have someone over a barrel means "to put someone in a helpless position, to put someone in a difficult situation." The origin? The Grammarist maintains it's "obscure," adding some possible theories:

One theory is that the idiom refers to the practice of draping a drowned man over a barrel in order to clear his lungs of water. Another theory is that is refers to a common hazing practice in college fraternities in the late eighteen-hundreds. Most probably, both of these practices relate to a practice wherein sailors were punished on the high seas by being tied over barrels and flogged. The idiom over a barrel was used in the 1939 movie "The Big Sleep" in a context that suggested it referred to the barrel of a gun, though it was a pun.  

The Phrase Finder agrees that this phrase first appeared in the late-19th century, and notes that it is "American" in origin. Phrase Finder adds:

It alludes to the actual situation of being draped over a barrel, either to empty the lungs of someone who has been close to drowning, or to give a flogging. Either way, the position of helplessness and in being under someone else's control is what is being referred to. ... An example of such a literal "over the barrel" experience was recorded in the Delaware newspaper The Daily Republican, July 1886, which reported the initiation ceremony of a college fraternity... Soon after that "over a barrel" took on the figurative meaning of "in trouble; without any hope of deliverance." This usage is recorded in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 1893, in a story of an unfaithful wife...

WordOrigins.org has a slightly different take on the idiom, suggesting that although it's associated with punishment, it's not necessarily nautical in origin:

....The metaphor underlying over a barrel is not known for certain, but it most likely is an allusion to strapping or holding a person over a barrel in order to flog them. We can see just such a literal use of the phrase in an 1869 bit of doggerel by journalist Marcus M. “Brick” Pomeroy about schoolteachers disciplining children. This is by no means the first such literal use, just an example:
I’d like to be a school-marm,
And with the school-marms stand,
With a bad boy over a barrel
And a spanker in my hand.
It is commonly asserted that over a barrel is nautical in origin and refers to sailors being flogged for various breaches of discipline. But there is no association with the phrase and the navy in the literature, and the practice of the Royal and U.S. Navies was to use a grating, not a barrel, for such punishment.

I think we've flogged the phrase over a barrel enough for now, agreed?

Whoever is in her sights is over a barrel, in more ways than one.
Miriam Kiehl shooting over a barrel, probably at Fort Lawton, 1900, by H. Ambrose Kiehl
https://www.flickr.com/photos/uw_digital_images/4476181241/
No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53413992

**** A tip o' the hat to Leadville buddy and all around awesome person Christine Carlson Whittington who suggested this Slang-o-rama phrase!****


 

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Slang-o-rama Breaks for Bouchercon

 I'm off to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the big annual world mystery convention, Bouchercon. I'll be rumbling around, in search of a strong cup of coffee close to the Hilton Minneapolis (recommendations are welcome!). 

As for my schedule, on Thursday, Sept. 8, I'll be in the Hospitality Suite 1-2pm and at the registration desk 2-4pm. On Friday, I'll on the "Out West Mystery" panel at 1:45 p.m. Saturday at 7 a.m. (Yeowza! That's early!) I am going to be part of the author "speed-dating" brigade. You can find the entire Bouchercon schedule and search for your favorite attending authors, right here.

If you see me (I will most likely be masked 😷), please do come on over and say howdy! 👋

As for Slang-o-rama, it will return next week, when I return as well.




Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Conniption (fit)

 "Don't have a conniption fit," my mother would say when one of us kids was working up a good head of steam on a tantrum. Conniption is such a fine word. Let's take a closer look at it...

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Americanisms, Old and New by John Stephen Farmer (c. 1889) explains that conniption fit is "a synonym for hysteria." The dictionary continues: "A word common in New England and among the descendants of New Englanders in the State of New York. Also a state of collapse."

Well, now I know it pre-dates my mother by a long while. But how far back does the word conniption go and where'd it come from? The Online Etymology Dictionary has an answer!

Conniption (n.) "attack of hysteria," 1833, in conniption fit, American English, origin uncertain; perhaps a fanciful formation related to corruption, which was used in a sense of "anger" from 1799, or from English dialectal canapshus "ill-tempered, captious," which probably is a corruption of captious.

That's pretty interesting... but what is equally interesting is a quote that OED referenced, which appears in John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (c. 1848):

CONNIPTION FIT. This term is exclusively used by the fair sex, who can best explain its meaning. Ex. "George if you keep coming home so late to dinner I shall have a conniption." As near as I can judge, conniption fits are tantrums.

So, I guess my mother's mother's mother could have been throwing a conniption fit and been warned to "lay off" (although not in those words!) by her mother.

And so it goes...

Even adults can throw conniption fits.
An 1862 cartoon caricature of Christina Rossetti, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, showing her
having a tantrum (aka, conniption fit) after reading The Times review of her poetry.
The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 392836
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48516342


Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Bite the bullet

The phrase bite the bullet evokes such an unpleasant image, which suits, given that it's generally defined as behaving "bravely or stoically when facing pain or a difficult situation" (The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer). I can't help but picture an Old West cowboy (or maybe a Civil War soldier) biting on a bullet as surgery is performed to remove a bullet (of course!) from his leg...
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The Dictionary of Idioms strengthens that mental image in this explanation:
This phrase is of military origin, but the precise allusion is uncertain. Some say it referred to the tratment of a wounded soldier without anesthesia, so that he would be asked to bite on a lead bulleet during treatment. Also, Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796) holds that grenadiers being disciplined with the cat-o--nine tails would bite on a bullet to avoid crying out in pain.
I'll pause here so we can all wince in sympathy.
 
Now, forward, to see if The Phrase Finder has more to say about this phrase, and of course, it does! The post considers several origin theories... all of a military nature... before settling on the "surgery before anesthesia" explanation. Word Histories also has a nice entry and offers several 19th-century appearances, including in author Rudyard Kipling's The Light That Failed, published in installments in 1890. Finally, The Grammarist muses on another possible origin for the phrase, with a nod to my imaginings above about cowboys and the Old West:
Biting the bullet is a cliché of the American Old West, cowboys are often depicted as biting the bullet when undergoing medical procedures without anesthetic. Bullets are made of lead, a soft metal, and biting a bullet was a distraction designed to stop a patient from crying out. The term bite the bullet is older than the 1800s, however, and may actually refer to how early guns worked. Gunpowder and a ball were previously loaded into paper cartridges. In the heat of battle, the soldier would rip open the tip of the paper cartridge with his teeth and pour the gunpowder and ball into his gun. Biting these cartridges and calmly loading a gun in the face of the enemy certainly meant facing a difficult situation with bravery, as in the idiom bite the bullet.
So, there you go. I've exhausted my allotted time to research this phrase, so it's time for me to bite the bullet and get busy on the rest of my to-do list for today.

When the bullet is in flight, don't bite.
Photo by physicist Ernst Mach (1888), depicting the waves around a supersonic brass bullet.
Scan from book (now lost), Public Domain
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15716604