In the house
What is the origin of the now popular phrase in the house, as in “Ladies and gentlemen, Bobby Brown is in the house”? I don’t know, but a short explanation should be added to my response. A good deal depends on the meaning of the question “What is the origin of a certain phrase?” If the querist wonders when the phrase surfaced in writing, the date, given our resources, is usually ascertainable. But the circumstances in which that phrase first occurred are most often beyond recovery. Hence the endless discussion about the origin of a whole nine yards (why nine and nine yards of what?) and other outwardly transparent idioms. The hardest case is what one might call “nonsense idioms.” They must have been clear once, at least to some group of speakers, but today they only puzzle. Consider pay through the nose, rain cats and dogs, and even put a spoke in one’s wheel, all of them once discussed in this blog. The phrase in the house is not metaphorical, because it means what it says, that is, “present.” Perhaps its popularity goes back to the 1995 American sitcom TV comedy of that name. But long before that there was a British comedy titled Is There a Doctor in the House? Apparently, we have to look to popular culture for the origin of this idiom, and it is not even obvious that we are dealing with an idiom in the proper sense of the term.
Cut the mustard
This is almost as hopeless as a whole nine yards. Apparently, people found it hard to cut the mustard (which is not a surprise) or, as Stephen Goranson suggested, they had great trouble cutting their way through overgrown mustard weeds, for mustard plants could reach eleven feet high. The idiom is American. It seems to have been coined close to the end of the nineteenth century. At the time when the first edition of the OED (the volumes with the letters C and M) was being compiled, James Murray and his team received no citations for cut the mustard, even though it enjoyed some popularity in the United States. The earliest examples found so far turned up in railway slang, but it does not follow that the phrase originated in that environment (Freeman H. Hubbard, quite naturally, left it out of his Dictionary of Railroad Lingo). Later the idiom attached itself to a negation, as in He does not cut the mustard in this role, that is, “does not succeed,” though it started without not: something and somebody were just allowed to cut the mustard. Since mustard has the slangy meaning “the right thing,” the idiom may not even be connected with cutting the plant, though cut certainly needs an explanation. The idea that cut the mustard turned up in military usage, where mustard is a folk etymological alteration of mustered, has nothing to recommend it. So where are we with this phrase? Nowhere, I am afraid. This is the most common case in historical phraseology.
Cool as a cucumber
In a recent talk show, I said that this simile is based on alliteration (tomatoes, for instance, would not do because the initial sounds don’t match) and received a letter from Mr. David Houg, who has no objections to my reasoning but adds the following: “Cucumbers are cooler than tomatoes because they lie on the ground and are very moist, as opposed to hanging on a vine…. So during the night they lose heat, cool down, and, when picked up in the morning, will be close to the overnight temp, rather than the morning temp.” Here then is a perfect union of the thing and its name (“Wörter und Sachen”: there was a fruitful trend in etymology—“Words and Things”—that insisted on a detailed study of “objects” in dealing with word origins).
Apropos whipping the cat
A recent post was devoted to the idioms whip the cat and not enough room to swing a cat. (It is raining cats and dogs has been mentioned above.) Some time ago I ran into a quotation from Addison (The Spectator, April 1712, No. 361). In his essay, this instrument means “cat-call”: “It is certain that the roasting of a cat does not call together a greater audience of that species than this instrument, if dexterously played upon in proper time and place.” Is this a rather ponderous joke or should we add roasting the cat to other (proverbial) indignities offered to this animal? The Internet gives plenty of advice on cat meat and on roasting it, but I doubt that Addison had some culinary recipe in mind.
The word buggy
In the post of June 3, 2015 (“Bugs: A Postscript”), I mentioned in passing that buggy “a vehicle” is hardly a word borrowed from India. In response I received a quotation from The Century Dictionary [CD] that says: “Of Anglo-Indian origin.” Since I am a great admirer of Charles P. G. Scott, the etymologist for CD, I naturally consulted that dictionary before writing the post. The quotation sent me was from the first edition (which is available online), but there was a revised edition, and I have access to both. The later version offered a different etymology of buggy, but first I should mention Scott’s 1911 publication, titled “Bogus and His Crew.” In it, he discusses buggy in great detail. He mentions bogie, a word for a small truck used in and about the mines and later applied to other small trucks and other light vehicles. “There came into use in the middle of the 18th century a carriage that was lighter and more convenient than the hevy [sic: Scott used reformed spelling! Cf. his wheeld and speld below] coaches that had long been in use. It was two-wheeld or four-wheeld. It could be drawn by one horse or by two. It became known as a *bogie, speld, in the plural, bougées.” The neologism caught on in India, and many people thought, erroneously as it seems, that it originated there. “The word buggy in part displaced the synonym gig, which as applied to a light vehicle had also a trivial rustic origin—a name without any near relevancy to a vehicle, adopted because of a remote relevancy, and because it made no strain on the intellectual faculties…. In England a man was respectable if he kept a gig. In America a man was respectable if he kept a buggy.” In Scott’s opinion, bogus goes back to boghest, in which bo– is a syllable intended to arouse terror, and –ghest is “ghost.” However, the origin of bogus will not concern us here. In the second edition of CD, the conclusion of the 1911 publication is summarized in a few lines. In The New Century Dictionary, a two-volume reference work, the word’s origin is called obscure.
Don’t miss the statement that gig made no strain on the intellectual faculties! The “ultimate” origin of gig and its likes (the first consonant is the same or almost the same as the last, with a vowel in the middle, more often a short one: compare gag, jig, jog, pip, pap, pup, pop, poop, bob, etc.) is destined to remain “unknown.” They are expressive (humorous, sound symbolic) and inherently meaningless.