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Idioms: the American heritage

Idioms, especially if we add proverbs and familiar quotations to them, are a shoreless ocean. Especially numerous are so-called gnomic sayings (aphorisms) like make hay while the sun shines, better safe than sorry, and a friend in need is a friend indeed. Their age is usually hard or even impossible to determine. Since most of them reflect people’s universal experience, they may be very old. In contrast, such undecipherable phrases as kick the bucket, put a spoke in someone’s wheel, or cut the mustard are fairly recent. At least they presuppose the existence of buckets, spokes, wheels, and the cultivation of mustard.  (This type of reasoning is called relative chronology and sometimes yields useful results.)

More important is the fact that in the Germanic languages (and English is one of them) metaphorical sayings, like an extensive use of metaphors in general, are relatively late. There were few of them before the Renaissance. And yet, now that they are with us, we seldom know where they came from. To put a sock in it “to pacify someone, to make one quiet down” is, or so it seems, a British twentieth-century invention (with sock being rather enigmatic), while it blew (knocked) my socks off appears to be a late Americanism. Obviously, our conclusions about the chronology of such sayings depend on their occurrence in books, newspapers, or some other written sources. The time gap between coining and recording them may but needn’t be too long.

In my etymological database of approximately 1,500 idioms, about sixty are probably or certainly Americanisms. Perhaps a quick view of them will be interesting to our readers. The New World provenance of some needs no proof. Such are, for example, honest injun, recorded very early (1676), Lynch Law (1811), and almighty dollar. The first of them makes us wince. It means “my word of honor,” and its derogatory sense is likely, for the suggestion must have been that an Indian is never to be trusted (an honest Indian is thus a wonder). Mark Twain’s characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn regularly use this American equivalent of British honour bright, but there is no way of knowing to what extent his novels contributed to the popularity of the expression. In any case, the southerners Tom and Huck did not learn it from books.

The origin of even such seemingly obvious idioms is not always clear. For example, is the interpretation given above (an honest native is a wonder) correct? Lynch Law sent historians looking for the true Lynch. Some studies of this subject are excellent, but the identity of Mr. Lynch is still not entirely clear. Almighty dollar (1836) has been traced to Washington Irving, possibly modeled on almighty gold. In dealing with idioms, one often wonders whether the phrase in question is worth considering. For instance, does the phrase the American way exist? It probably does, but how idiomatic is the locution the American way of life?

Also, some phrases referring to places have become proverbial. Such are White House (Washington D.C.), Downing Street 12 (London), and perhaps Sleepy Hollow, the latter immortalized by Washington Irving.  One hesitates to call them idioms, because they are fully transparent. However, take Foggy Bottom. As an area, the term applies only to a relatively small section of Northwest Washington between White House and Georgetown. But as a political term it refers to the State Department only, rather than to government in general. It was presumably coined on analogy with Whitehall (the main residence of English monarchs in the sixteenth and the seventeenth century) and Quai d’Orsai (the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is situated on that embankment in Paris). To be sure, the name does not sound complimentary.

How foggy is Foggy Bottom? Image via Wikimedia Commons, CC by 3.0.

One author wrote: “My personal recollection associates the term as well with the gas works and its emanations, which until recently [1962] were distinguishing qualities of Foggy Bottom.” Another correspondent suggested the following: “A friend who lived in Washington D.C. mentioned FB as an area district name. This would take it to 1915 and earlier. I assume that bottom is a reduction of bottomland, and that foggy refers to the morning miasma of the Potomac or its eastern branch, the Anacostia.” The origin of place names is a branch of etymology in its own right. However, at the moment we are not interested in geography. Clearly, Foggy Bottom has gained such popularity as a political term because of its association with the State Department.

A man and a Brother. Image via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

No one will doubt that honest injun is an American coinage. The same, we would think, must be true of the antislavery slogan a man and a brother, but it is not. The phrase was adopted as a seal by the Anti-Slavery Society of London. In 1768, Josiah Wedgwood produced a medallion showing a Negro in chains, with one knee on the ground and both hands lifted to heaven. In the printed book (1799), the design of the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery was modeled by William Hackwood under Wedgwood’s directions and was laid before the committee of the Society on October 16, 1787. It was approved, and “a seal was ordered to be engraved from it. In 1792 Wedgwood, at his own expense, had a block cut from the design as a frontispiece illustration for one of Clarkson’s pamphlets.”

This is Josiah Wedgwood, the preeminent potter. Photo © Stephen Betteridge (cc-by-sa/2.0).

Two more American phrases with names in them may be worth mentioning. One is Annie Oakley “a pass to circus and other performance after it is punctured.” It commemorates Annie Oakley, famous for sharpshooting achievement. One of her tricks was to cut out the pips on a playing card. She was the star of a once popular show. Is Annie Oakley an idiom? Another item from my database is Bronx cheer “a sound of derision made by blowing through closed lips with the tongue between them.” I’ll quote the entry in full: “The same as British blowing a raspberry. Some say the cheer originated at the old Fairmount Athletic Club in the Bronx; others associate it with the Yankee Stadium, also in The Bronx.  Mr. Clarence Edward Heller, in our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic publication, once traced the origin back to the thirteenth century, in the south of Italy. His point was later confirmed by an editor of an Italian paper (published here in the United States), who said that the mouth salute has long been somewhat common in that region. Damon Runyon says the cheer (that is, the vulgar form) was discovered and titled by Tad [Thomas A. Dorgan, 1877-1929], the great cartoonist, a matter of thirty years ago. It came about, he states, when Tad made a trip of exploration to the Fairmount Boxing Club in the Bronx” (American Notes and Queries 2, 1942, 106-107). The OED dates the phrase to 1929. The Internet (“The Phrase Finder”) offers some discussion of Bronx cheer. It is different from what is said above, but my conclusions are limited, because they derive entirely from my modest database. Yet I do consult dictionaries of the why do we say so? type. Not to put too fine a point on it, some suggestions in them should be taken with a grain of salt.

Annie Oakley. You have to be a sharpshooter to pass into in idiom. Image via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

If this post invites questions and comments, I’ll perhaps continue with the subject.

Feature image credit: Whitehall, via Leonard Bentley on Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Recent Comments

  1. Grayce

    In the Bible, a “good samaritan” performs a philanthropic act. The good in that title is like the honest in “honest injun.” It contrasts, for better or worse, the general idea of what a samaritan was (not so good).

  2. Marino Lopez

    Thank you for the Article about Collocations, which, by the way, are quite difficult to be learnt by an English student due to the fact that the translation is not what it says literally.

    I really enjoy reading this post, since it will help me as an English Teacher to get more acquainted about it. Thank you so much for sharing this information.

  3. Marino Lopez

    My apologies, I wrote incorrectly, I wrote: ‘Collocations’, instead of: ‘Idioms’, I am sorry for the mistake in typing in.

  4. Colleen Pidgeon

    Yes, please! More! While teaching English as another language, dealing with idioms is such a challenge! All help most appreciated! And don’t make just Americanisms. Canadian ones can be different, too

  5. Gavin Wraith

    If you lived in a hilly part of the countryside in the UK you would find nothing surprising in foggy bottoms. At certain seasons travelling along certain roads your vision can be unexpectedly reduced to just a few yards – quite dangerous, even on a bicycle.

  6. Greacian Goeke

    Very interested to hear more! I love to use proverbs and sayings to spark conversations between different age groups and backgrounds.

  7. Peter Maher

    “Blowing a raspberry sc. tart”– is cockney rhyming slang for “fart”.

  8. John Cowan

    In the slave/Slav post you write “One can hardly adduce a similar example of the word for “slave” coinciding with a so-called ethnonym.”

    I know of at least two cases, both from the New World:

    Esclave panis was a Quebec French expression for a Native slave (as opposed to an African one); the adjective is from Pawnee (an exonym for Caddoan-speaking peoples) but was later generalized.

    Similarly, in the Tsimshianic languages the word for “slave(s)” is a form of the word “Tlingit”: Coastal Tsimshian łiłiingyit, Nisga’a łiłingit. (Marie-Lucie Tarpent, p.c.)

  9. Yves Rehbein

    “Indiana Ehrenwort” (Indian promise, word of honour) made it to German, where romantic stories of the wild west flourished with Karl May, etc. We also have “eine ehrliche Haut” (an honest skin; an honest person), which I have no idea what it originally meant (a true story written on leather? Ha!).

    @John Cowan, sounds suspiciously like chess’ pawn (“pod” [feet] seems to appear in Greek “anthrapodon” [slave], but that’s uncertain), and I have no idea where pawn-shop comes from, one suggestion is Dutch “pant”, surely akin to German “Pfand” (which I translate as “[bottle] deposite”).

  10. John Cowan

    Yves (I hope you see this):

    The OED3 says Pawnee is from Algonquian paːni¨: ‘Pawnee, slave’ (we don’t know exactly which language was the source), which in turn is borrowed from some Siouan language where it meant ‘western foreigner’.

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