Every day we use expressions that on the face of it are pretty odd: blow hot and cold, the devil to pay, steal someone’s thunder… Have you ever wondered where they come from? Many people think they know the origins of words such as OK or paparazzi, but are they right? Today sees the UK publication of the latest edition of The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and free with the book is a booklet called ‘Can your flamingo do the flamenco?’, which gives the low down on the stories behind the phrases. Today I’m posting a handful of my favourites.
US readers will be able to buy the dictionary – without the booklet – later in the year.
Papped by the paparazzi
Most celebrities have a love-hate relationship with the paparazzi. Originally, Paparazzo was the name of a society photographer in Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita. By the following year paparazzo was appearing as a general name in English for a press photographer, and it had acquired the plural paparazzi, which is how it most commonly appears nowadays.
Read them the riot act
If you want to give someone a severe warning or reprimand, you may read the riot act to them.
The Riot Act was passed by the British government in 1715, in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion of that year, to prevent civil disorder. The Act made it an offence for a group of twelve or more people to refuse to disperse within an hour of being ordered to do so, and after a magistrate had read a particular section of the Act to them.
The last point created something of a problem, as reading legal language aloud is not the easiest thing to do in the middle of a genuine riot – and defendants might claim later that they had not heard the key words. The Act failed to prevent a number of disturbances over the years, but was not repealed until 1967.
Steal your thunder
If someone steals your thunder they win attention for themselves by pre-empting your attempt to impress.
The source of this expression is surprisingly literal. The English dramatist John Dennis (1657-1734) invented a new method of simulating the sound of thunder as a theatrical sound effect and used it in his unsuccessful play Appius and Virginia. Shortly after his play came to the end of its disappointingly short run he heard the same thunder effects used at a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Dennis was understandably furious. ‘Damn them!’, he fumed, ‘they will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!’
The use of OK to reassure someone that all is well has been part of the language since the mid 19th century. It came from the USA, and is probably an abbreviation of orl korrect, a jokey spelling of ‘all correct’ that was used as a slogan during the presidential re-election campaign of Martin Van Buren in 1840. It was reinforced by the initials of his nickname Old Kinderhook, derived from his birthplace.
The ‘Can your Flamingo do the Flamenco?’ booklet is free with Concise Oxford English Dictionary in selected markets only. These markets are UK, Australia, and South Africa.