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Origin of Words; The Sequel

Sometimes I have to bite the bullet and give in to my continuing interest in the origin of some common phrases; I try to go cold turkey on this, but the urge to share some of these pearls of wisdom is just too pervasive.

Take, for example, the three I just used, “bite the bullet,” “cold turkey” and “pearls of wisdom.”

 "Bite the bullet” has origins tied to the history of firearms.  Literally, back in the days when there wasn’t any sort of anesthesia available on the battlefield, combat surgeons would make patients bite down on the most readily available item on the battlefield--bullets. Thank goodness for modern medicine!

The background of “cold turkey” is a bit creepy and not for the faint of heart, so I’ll issue a warning so the reader can skip to the next paragraph if desired--this is a bit graphic--but in the world of drug withdrawal, an addict’s skin can become translucent, hard to the touch and covered with goose bumps, like the skin of a plucked turkey; see, I told you to use caution reading that one … yuck!  But the phrase has now come to be used whenever somebody quits anything abruptly.

“Pearls of wisdom” are examples of how something beautiful can emerge from something, well, not so beautiful. A pearl is formed when a grain of sand gets caught in an oyster’s digestive system and irritates it. So the oyster produces a slimy substance that covers the grain of sand to soothe the irritation. As the oyster produces layer after layer of this slime, over time, it hardens into a beautiful pearl. Wisdom also takes time and often involves hard experience, so pearls of wisdom generally come from someone who has been there, done that and got the T-shirt to prove it.

Not listening to pearls of wisdom can lead people to “eat humble pie.” Staying on the theme of nasty origins, this one came from the Middle Ages, when the lord of a manor would hold a feast after hunting. He and his “finest” guests would receive the choice cuts of meat, but those of lower orders would eat a pie filled with entrails and innards known as “umbles.” So receiving “umble pie” was considered a negative statement on one’s social standing. So now, to eat humble pie is to go with hat in hand and admit you were really, really wrong about something. Knowing the origin of that word is enough to make me avoid doing anything requiring me to consume it.

Of course, when you refuse to admit you’re wrong and eat your humble pie, it may cause your closest friends and associates to give you the “cold shoulder.” Today this means letting someone know they are no longer welcome or that you are avoiding them, but in medieval England, it was a polite way of telling party guests the party’s over. After a feast, the host would give a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton or pork to let everyone know it was time to leave--much better than humble pie.

If I was one of those departing party guests getting a shoulder of mutton, I’d be “pleased as punch.” This is a saying I always thought meant being happy as a pitcher of punch; but a bit of research had led to the discovery that it originates from a 17th-century puppet show called “Punch and Judy” and it has totally changed my view of the phrase. In the puppet skits, Punch always killed people; the act of doing so brought him pleasure and he was pleased with himself afterwards. I guess those 17th-century folks had a different view of pleasure than this 21st century.

In fact, their perspective kind of “rubs me the wrong way,” a phrase today meaning to irritate or bother someone. However, colonial Americans had a totally different reason for using the term; oak-board floors needed to wet-rub and dry-rub oak board floors each week. Doing it against the grain caused streaks to form, making the wood look awful and irritating the lady of the house; and when mama isn’t happy, nobody’s happy … another phrase that is a good rule of thumb.

Which is a phrase that would definitely not make mama happy today. Legend has it that 17th-century English judge Sir Francis Buller ruled it was permissible for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, given that the stick was no wider than his thumb; let us be thankful those laws have changed so that judges can no longer run amok.

“Run amok,” which means to go crazy, comes from the Malaysian word amoq, which describes the behavior of tribesmen who, under the influence of opium, became wild, rampaging mobs who attacked anyone in their path.

Well, I don’t want to make Week-Enders run amok to start your weekend, so I’ll wrap it up and let you get back to your Friday.  But if you have any common phrases with uncommon origins you’d like to share before you go, I’d enjoy hearing them and so would others, so share.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.

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