Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Crack up

I recall the phrase you crack me up and variations of such from my teen years, which is why I thought it must be a recent saying. But as you know, I am more often than not wrong about such things. Thank goodness for research, idiom dictionaries, and the internet...

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Crack up actually has several slang-ish meanings, and my trusty copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer runs down the list, providing "first use" dates for a couple of them. There's crack up as in to suffer an emotional breakdown (early 1900s). Then, crack up meaning to damage or wreck a vehicle or vessel and ato experience a crash (no first use dates for those two definitions). Finally we get to the phrase I'm interested in: crack someone up, meaning to "burst or cause to burst out laughing (1940).

American Slang, 2nd Edition by Robert L. Chapman with Barbara Ann Kipfer agrees with the 1940 date for crack up meaning "to have a fit of uncontrollable laughter." Interestingly, the next entry is "crack wise" from the 1920s, which means to make quick pungent, witty, and often malicious remarks. But I digress.

But wait a minute! The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say about crack up:

The verbal phrase in the meaning "to break up laughing" is by 1967, transitive and intransitive.

Without getting too specific, 1967 is just about right for my teen years... but doesn't line up with what the other dictionaries say. Here's one more data point for you, then: Your Dictionary's page on 1940s slang lists crack up (burst out laughing). So, I think we're safe with going with the 1940s, at least. A good place to stop. 

If you find any other references, please let me know in the comments. Maybe we can push that date back even further into the past?

It's an anachronistic High Renaissance crack up!
Four Laughing People by Bartolomeo Veneto (c. 1510-30) 

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

Image by b0red from Pixabay



Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Spin a yarn

To spin a yarn is pretty much the forte of fiction writers. When first pondering this phrase, I thought that it must be related to weave a tale, and therefore, by extension and relation, it must have originated in the world of spinning wheels and textiles.

Imagine my surprise...
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... when I read that spin a yarn appears to have originated in the nautical world of old. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer provides the following definition and origin:
spin a yarn: Tell a story, especially a long drawn-out or totally fanciful one... Originally a nautical term dating from about 1800, this expression probably owes its life to the fact that it embodies a double meaning, yarn signifying both "spun fiber" and "a tale."

This provided the basics, but I wanted more. World Wide Words, in a nice entry on the phrase, adds that the expression appears in print in the early nineteenth century along with spin out a long yarn, and that it was first used by sailors. Although admitting that the ultimate origin is unclear, WWW throws me a line (there's another bit of slang from the high seas!) with the following possible explanation:

However, we do know that one task of sailors was to make running repairs to the various ropes of the ship — the cables, hawsers and rigging. As with people on shore, yarn was their word for the individual strands of such ropes, often very long. Their term for binding the strands into fresh rope was spinning or to spin out. The next part is a jump of imagination, for which you may substitute the word guess, though I would prefer to call it informed speculation. The task of repair was necessarily long and tedious. We may easily imagine members of the repair crew telling one another stories to make the time pass more easily and that this practice became associated with the phrases.

"Jump of imagination," "guess" "informed speculation" ... The unknown origin of the phrase seems, in and of itself, to invite one to spin a yarn.

Gotta keep those plot threads straight when spinning a yarn.
Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay



Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Them's the breaks

 Perhaps, like me, when carefully planned things slip sideways, you are inclined to mutter Them's the breaks. When that phrase popped to mind recently, I paused to consider: what kind of breaks are we talking about? Broken glass? Broken bones?

What do you think?

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Maybe you're smarter than I am and knew right away: this phrase comes to us courtesy of pool halls and billiard rooms. The Grammarist says the following:

This phrase comes from North America and has several variations. Them’s the breaks or that’s the breaks or them’s da breaks, with the first spelling being the most popular and the last being the least (and also most informal). ... The phrase means that sometimes the outcome to a situation isn’t what one wanted or expected, and most especially, that there isn’t much to be done about it so one might as well accept it and move on. 
The phrase them’s the breaks comes from the game of pool or billiards. When the balls are racked up in formation one player ‘breaks’ or takes the first shot to try and send the balls around the table. The result of this break cannot be changed and the players must make do with what they are given.

There's more discussion over at The Phrase Finder that corroborates this, but no indication as to "when" this phrase first appeared. Digging around a bit more, I hit on this Reddit/etymology thread. The discussion started four years ago, and then picked up again recently with a reference to British prime minister Boris Johnson. Apparently he used this phrase in his resignation speech.

Anyhow, I checked Google Ngram (results below) to get an idea of when it started showing up in books. That's the breaks appears in the 1920s, and I did find it in The Best Short Stories of 1932. Them's the breaks shows up a while after that.

The phrase definitely has that "gangster-y" 1930s, '40s vibe, right?

Speaking of pool, and breaks, and so on, I can't let this Slang-o-rama post go without adding this great scene from the 1961 movie The Hustler with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. Enjoy!

"I gotta hunch, Fat Man.... This is my table, I own it."

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Where the rubber meets the road

 As I prepare to "take to the skies" to attend the Public Safety Writers Association conference in Las Vegas this coming weekend, I am musing slang that has a touch of travel about it. For instance, where the rubber meets the road sounds like a saying made for a journey. However...

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... as Word Histories notes, this phrase doesn't really have much to do with roads and wheels. Rather, it means "where the important facts or realities lie" or "where theory is put into practice." Word Histories dates the earliest appearance of this phrase to 1956 and adds

...With one exception, all the texts containing the earliest occurrences of the phrase that I have found indicate that it originated in the jargon of the advertising business—jargon in which let’s get down (to) where the rubber meets the road meant how much is it going to cost?

For more fascinating phrases that first popped up in the world of advertising (“gray flannelisms”), check out the post

Over at The Phrase Finder, there's a nifty little discussion about this phrase that eventually led me to this Firestone Tire commercial with a catchy little jingle/song that employs where the rubber meets the road in a very literal way.

And with that, I'd better get packing!

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: (All) at sea

 

If you're feeling a little at sea in these uncertain times, I assure you, you are not alone. But before we get a little green around the gills with all the swaying and lurching about in the greater world "outside," let's take a look at the idiom all at sea (because this is, after all, a blog about language and only in the most devious/clandestine way about anything else)...

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The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer defines the idiomatic all at sea or at sea to mean "perplexed, bewildered," which is as good a definition as any. The dictionary continues, "This idiom transfers the condition of a vessel that has lost its bearings to the human mind," and dates it to the later 1700s. The Phrase Finder tackles the phrase as well, defining it to mean "in a state of confusion and disorder," and provides an early example from Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the laws of England, 1768: "If a court of equity were still at sea, and floated upon the occasional opinion which the judge who happened to preside might entertain of conscience in every particular case." .... Ooookay. I'm no lawyer, and even after slogging through the Wikipedia explanation of "court of equity," I'm still not sure what these courts are. I guess you could say I'm at sea (which reflects my state of being after certain present-day high court decisions, which have me feeling a little sick to my stomach, so there you go).

Batten the hatches, rough seas ahead...
Ocean by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1896, WikiArt



Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Make hay while the sun shines

With the solstice, summer has officially arrived! Let's all make hay while the sun shines!

Hey/hay, guess when we started using that expression, which according to the Cambridge Dictionary means "to make good use of an opportunity while it lasts" (but you all knew that, right?).

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The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer pegs it to early 1500s, noting that it "alludes to the optimum dry weather for cutting grass." The ever-educational site The Phrase Finder gives us the first recorded appearance in John Heywood's "A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue" in 1546:

 Whan the sunne shinth make hay. Whiche is to say.

Take time whan time cometh, lest time steale away. 

It's still daylight hours as I type this, so I'm going to call it good for today and go make some hay while the sun shines. May you do the same, and seize the moment however you wish!

In real life, making hay is hot, dusty work.
Hay Harvest at √Čragny, 1901, Camille Pissarro - National Gallery of Canada, Public Domain
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35391190

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Derring-do

Antonia Gizzi, the young ward of my Silver Rush protagonist Inez Stannert, dreams of living a life full of derring-do.

But wait.

Can she? In 1882? When did derring-do first come into use and what's its origin, anyway?

Slang-o-rama shall save the day, galloping to the rescue of derring-do (which, according to Merriam-Webster, means "daring action").

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According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Antonia certainly could think of derring-do, since the term made its first appearance in the 1570s, long before the 19th century! OED adds some interesting background, which shows its roots go back way before that:

...[O]riginally (late 14c.) dorrying don, literally "daring (to) do," from durring "daring," present participle of Middle English durren "to dare" .... Chaucer used it in passages where the sense was "daring to do" (what is proper to a brave knight). Misspelled derrynge do in 1500s and mistaken for a noun by Spenser, who took it to mean "manhood and chevalrie;" picked up from him and passed on to Romantic poets as a pseudo-archaism by Sir Walter Scott.

The Phrase Finder has a nice post following the disintegration of the original phrase to the one we know so well, saying in part: 

The earliest form of 'derring-do' in print is found in Geoffrey Chaucer's Troylus And Criseyde, circa 1374: "In durring don that longeth to a knight." Chaucer was using the two words 'durring' and 'don' with their usual 14th century meanings of 'daring' and 'do'. This line in his work translates into 20th century language as 'in daring to do what is proper for a knight'. The poet John Lydgate, paraphrased Chaucer in The Chronicle of Troy, 1430, and his 'dorryng do' was misprinted in later versions of the work as 'derrynge do'.

 In reading the above, the celebrated Tudor poet Edmund Spenser appears not to have realised that derrynge was a misprint of durring, the meaning of which he would have been familiar with, and interpreted 'derrynge do' as meaning 'brave actions'. That was the way he used it in several of his late 16th poems, including his best-known work, The Faerie Queene, 1596: "A man of mickle name, Renowned much in armes and derring doe."

Last, but not least, make way for that inveterate plunderer of historic language, Sir Walter Scott. His use of 'derring-do' as a single word in the hugely popular novel Ivanhoe, 1820, cemented it into the language...

So, Antonia is allowed a little swashbuckle and derring-do, etymologically speaking. Although, since she is a girl, late-19th-century society would no doubt frown upon her doing so.

Yo-ho-ho and a touch of derring-do!
By Edward Mason Eggleston (1882-1941) - artmight.com Treasure Princess, Public Domain
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89375904