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The last shot at American Idioms

The use of metaphors is relatively late in the modern European languages; it is, in principle, a post-Renaissance phenomenon. The same holds for the idioms based on metaphors. No one in the days of Beowulf and perhaps even of Chaucer would have coined the phrase to lose one’s marbles “to become insane,” even if so long ago boys were as intent on collecting marbles as was Tom Sawyer.

American English is about five centuries old, and, not unexpectedly, quite a few phrases of this type arose in it. Some became universally known; others never crossed the ocean eastwards. As with many words first recorded overseas, we may come across collocations that had some currency in rural British dialects but did not catch the attention of literary people in England. Yet to lose one’s marbles does not appear to be one of such cases. The game of marbles in the form familiar to us originated in Germany (or so they say) and may have been popularized in the United States by the children of German immigrants (pure guesswork). To lose one’s marbles may go back to the frustration of a player who lost them, though the connection is not too convincing and other suggestions also exist. In any case, the idiom should remain with the label “American.”

A similar case is between a rock and a hard place. It turned up in the early 1920s, mainly in Arizona, in the sense “to be bankrupt.” The reference is supposed to be to the difficulty of navigating between Scylla and Charybdis. But why should such an allusion to a Greek myth have occurred to some businessman in twentieth-century Arizona? If the current explanation is correct, the inventor must have been someone versed in old tales. In any case, we witness a common play with almost interchangeable synonyms: after all, rock is the same as hard place. A model for such a locution would be easy to find: compare between the Devil and the deep sea (the 1620s) and between the beetle and the block (first attested in a book in 1590; beetle was the name of a sledge-like instrument).

Play well, don’t lose your marbles! Image credit: “Game of Marbles” by Karl Witkowski. Public domain via Wikimedia.

The idioms that are certainly American are not many, and lists of them exist. However, in my rundown on them, I failed to find a mention of under the weather. No occurrence of it in texts predates 1827. In 1857, it was explained (by an Englishman) as going back to the phrase under the wind, that is, “protected from the wind,” but under the weather means “sick, indisposed.” Though the nautical origin of the phrase is likely, the OED does not risk an etymology. The reference may well be to some place on board a ship in which the weather (or seasickness) affects one in a negative way. One wonders why British sailors did not coin the phrase centuries earlier.

Not improbably, to talk through one’s hat “to talk insincerely or nonsense” also originated in American English. In any case, the earliest citation in the OED is from an American text (1888). The saying has been tentatively traced to the custom of standing for a short time in church and praying into one’s hat (and thus feigning a prayer?). According to another interpretation, the saying means “to talk big or nonsense.” Fine, but why through one’s hat?

Hats do not fare well in idioms. Think of mad hatters (mad as a hatter was discussed in the post for January 24, 2018). Also, a promise or rather a threat to eat one’s hat refers to doing such an improbable thing if something happens. No one knows how such a threat originated. Mr. Grimwig (Chapter 14 of Oliver Twist) promised to eat his head, not his hat, if Oliver returned to Mr. Brownlow’s home. (Of course someone with a name like Grimwig would have been happy to eat any part of his head or the whole of it.) But hat is hardly an alteration of head or heart (as has been suggested), because boots also occurred in this idiom. To eat one’s hat turned up in a text dated to 1767 and seems to be an Americanism.

Some idioms go back to the days of slavery. Today, they are, fortunately, only of historical interest, and, to understand them, we need a background story. On July 17, 2019, I cited the phrase a man and a brother. Gin work may also be mentioned in this context. I owe my knowledge of this collocation to an article in American Notes and Queries 9, 1971, p. 120 (which I’ll retell almost verbatim).  The phrase meant “Little daily chores that must be done close around the farm house, as opposed to the harder all-day work of the farm.” In Salem, a central West Virginia town, some older people were told as children that the expression had originated in the Valley of Virginia. In that region, before the Civil War, male slaves who became too old or feeble to work in the fields were known generically as the “jims.” They were brought into the plantation house and given lighter work, “Jim Work,” in the house, yards, and out-buildings. Other farmers, whether slave-holders or not, picked up the term to designate work of lesser importance. It has been suggested that gin work (the same meaning) may be an alteration of Jim work.

Absolutely no rain! Image credit: “Quaker meeting in York” by Fran Lane. CC BY 1.0 via Wikimedia.

This story reminds us that sometimes, to understand an idiom, we have to decipher a seemingly incomprehensible word. Neither Jim nor gin makes sense in the phrase cited above: one has to know the “realities,” to understand the meaning.  Or it may happen that, though the necessary situation looks deceptively clear, the whole sounds like a puzzle. Such is the seemingly enigmatic phrase it always rains Quaker week, an obvious Americanism. It was believed that the Friends’ (Orthodox) yearly meeting (April or May) invariably brought rain! Rain, like hat, is a relatively common guest in the world of idioms. For it rains cats and dogs see the post for March 21, 2007. This is a British phrase, but to rain on one’s parade “to ruin one’s plans; to be a wet blanket, as it were” is a piece of American slang. Many idioms require the help of the folklorist. Compare the post on to hang out the broom for February 10, 2016.

An ideal image of transatlantic independence. Image credit: “Hogs in Snow” by Eva Blue. Public domain via Unsplash.

Finally, we may bother about neither the obscurity of the word involved nor the emerging picture of the whole. We know what to be left in the lurch is, even though we cannot find this proverbial lurch on the map of the world. Nor are many people interested in discovering the nature of dander in to get one’s dander up, but, if you are one of them, read the post for September 6, 2017.

It is nice to finish this series with an idiom that celebrates independence, a much valued asset on both sides of the Atlantic. My choice is as independent as a hog on ice. The Century Dictionary connected hog with hog in the game of curling, but this interpretation has been contested. The phrase enjoyed some popularity around 1900 in the Midwest and was used ironically about people who paraded nonexistent independence. But why such a bizarre image? The inventor did indeed go the whole hog in trying to obfuscate us. As always in etymology, there are more questions than definitive answers. Difficulties are everywhere, but don’t despair. Hitch your wagon to a star! (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Featured Image Credit: “Britannia between Scylla & Charybdi” by James Gillray. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Some US newspapers in 1886 have “talking through his hat,” perhaps suggesting absurdity (and not actually talking). From the Plain Dealer, Nov. 15, 1886 p. 4:
    “The very latest remark about the young man who has corraled everything from beer to champagne the night before and gets around in the morning morose and silent is that ‘he is talking through his hat.’ It is said that this is quite as expressive as anything he could say.”

  2. Stephen Goranson

    From The Baltimore Saturday Visitor, April 12, 1845, p.1:
    “….I spent my patrimony, but I did not, on that account, sit down and blubber like a boy who had lost his marbles.”

  3. Roger Allen

    “Between the beetle and the block” is surely the same as “between the hammer and the anvil” – which came first?
    “Under the weather/wind” – could this just refer to the (true) belief that people’s health can be affected by particular winds or other weather conditions?
    The interesting thing about “eating ones head” is surely its Ouroborian impossibility – a mouth swallowing the head that contains it is rather different to eating something usually thought inedible. Did “eat ones head” appear anywhere before Dickens used it?

  4. Jcb

    American English is NOT 500 years old, just over 400 at most…

  5. Vivian Ramalingam

    I wonder if the independent “hog on ice” referred to a type of barrel (hog or hog’s-head) that had gotten loose on frozen ground.

  6. Vivian Ramalingam

    The Ouroboros ate its tail, not its head. Maybe there is a confusion with Ugolino and Ruggieri, but the former gnawed the latter’s head, not his own. But there’s an old joke about the man who went to the doctor with a wound on his forehead, saying that he had bitten himself. “How did you do that?”, asked the doctor. The fellow replied, “I was standing on a chair!”

  7. Howard Coral

    Being an American farmer of livestock who has seen the ineffective efforts of pigs (or any hoofed animal) on frozen ponds, I would hazard a guess that “independent as a hog on ice” refers to the hog’s faustian freedom; free to go wherever he wants (unmolested by farmer or fence) but unable to actually do it. This explanation aligns with the cited midwestern usage around 1900 (A time and place replete with both hogs and ice).

  8. Eve Sweetser

    Well, indeed specific metaphors develop in a particular time and place – you can’t lose your marbles if you don’t have a marbles game.
    BUT certainly metaphor as a whole is NOT a recent development. All the Indo-European historical semantic data involves metaphor and metaphoric meaning extensions going back as far as we have access to the data.
    KNOWING IS SEEING (English wit, wisdom from the same root as witness); UNDERSTANDING IS GRASPING, POWER IS UP, they’re all there. Or image metaphors like Latin cardo “hinge” giving rise to “cardinal numbers” perhaps via the use of via cardinalis to mean the road dividing a Roman camp into two halves, which was also the main or primary road in the camp.

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