Definition: To be undecided or refusing to choose a side
Example: The kids wanted a dog. His wife wanted a cat. Jack was sitting on the fence over the issue. No matter which side he chose, it wasn’t going to make life easy for him.
Since the 1800s, sitting on the fence has been a popular phrase, especially when discussing political matters. It’s purely visual in nature. Hopping down one side of that fence takes you in one direction, hopping down the other side takes you in the opposite direction. Sitting there gets you nowhere at all.
The most famous political fence sitters were the Mugwumps, a group of Republicans who supported a Democratic candidate in the 1884 US election. The term came from the Algonquin ‘Mugquomp’, meaning ‘important person’. The term was not used as a mark of respect, but of derision. They were described by their opponents as birds sitting on a fence, with their mug on one side and their wump on the other. Ironically, they weren’t sitting on the fence at all. They made a decision, a hard one, and chose their side.
Iddy’s ready to make a choice himself. Any longer up there and his butt will be entirely numb.
Definition: To do something by the easiest /fastest /cheapest method, at the expense of doing it properly
Example: When the wheels came off Greg’s bike at high speed, he immediately regretted cutting corners when he’d repaired it.
Cutting corners originated in the physical act of going from A to B by the shortest possible route. There are multiple examples from the 1800s. Walking via an untried shortcut was cutting corners. Fox hunting parties on horseback not following the dog pack directly to catch them up were cutting corners. The expression also extended to carriages taking a corner too sharply so that the wheels mounted the curb. All of these situations had a common element of risk. A shortcut on foot might be dangerous. Horses might fall on unseen obstacles that the dog pack did not encounter on their own route. A carriage might break a wheel or axle, or even overturn.
Incidentally, the act of cutting corners spawned another phrase, one typically used across North America: kitty corner. It describes the relative location of something usually a building, being on the diagonally opposite corner of an intersection of streets. As cute as the term is, using it in conversation in the UK will get you a blank, uncomprehending stare.
But how the heck did this cute term come to be? Well, in older English usage, to cater was the act of going across, especially diagonally. The phrase cater corner came out of this. Over time, it morphed into catty corner, and eventually to the modern phrase kitty corner.
It might be worth sending Iddy out to look for a kitty corner at some point. Even if it’s just to see his own blank, uncomprehending stare…
Definition: You are supporting or protecting somebody.
Example: “I’ve got your back!” Randy shouted to Steve. Despite this assurance, Steve was shot twenty-seven times by the other paintball team. Thirteen of them were in the back.
Iddy has heard several explanations for the origin of ‘got your back‘. Let’s start with the least likely and progress to the most:
- If you put your arm around someone’s shoulders to comfort them, you physically have their back in your grasp.
- In some ancient forms of combat involving swords and shields, a ‘buddy’ system of fighting with your back to another friendly soldier’s protected you from attack in that direction.
- Still in the world of combat, but more recent, the phrase arose in the Second World War. As buildings and other defensive positions were cleared by squads, the first soldier to enter would be reliant on others to protect him from the rear as he concentrated fully on what lay ahead of him. This explanation seems best as it agrees with the similar phrase ‘Watch my back’ and fits in well with the timeline of the idiom’s introduction to the language.
Iddy’s upset as he didn’t ask anybody to get his in the first place. And now he feels a bit spineless.
Definition: Return to the start
Example: After his homemade computer exploded and burnt the house down, Harry decided he needed to go back to square one.
There are three common theories as to the origin of back to square one. All have some validity, but none are 100% accepted. Here they are:
a) BBC football coverage
In the 1920s, football (or soccer to those in America) matches were broadcast by radio. To help the listener picture the progress of the game, the pitch was divided up into 8 squares. The listeners had diagrams of the pitch which showed the corresponding squares, so they could follow the action as the commentator called out the location of the action. Sounds great. However, there are some issues. Firstly, nobody seems to have ever broadcast the phrase on air. Secondly, square one is to the left of one goal and doesn’t correspond to any form of starting over. Thirdly, the adoption of the phrase into common language seems to appear 25 years after the BBC stopped using this system. Plus, the squares were actually rectangles.
b) Snakes and ladders
This one seems to be a no-brainer. Those of us of a certain age have all played that board game. Roll the dice. Move to a numbered square. Go up the ladder. Slide down the snake. Going back to square one seems to be plain and simple. However, snakes and ladders boards don’t feature a snake leading back to the first square. Traditionally, the start is kept clear of snakes and ladders.
Another game. More squares. Eight or ten squares to be precise, numbered in sequence. There are indeed options in Hopscotch to return to the first square. What doesn’t ring true for this explanation is that Hopscotch has been around since the seventeenth century and the idiom can’t be found in print until 1952.
Choose an origin to your liking. Or make up one of your own. This one is not going to be solved anytime soon.
Definition: To be sensible
Example: Dan had his head screwed on. He wasn’t going to try cliff diving with the rest of his friends.
Have your head screwed on has a number of variations. That poor head can be screwed on:
to your shoulders
There are probably more, but Iddy’s getting dizzy trying them all out.
He hasn’t found a single explanation for the origin of any of the variations. They all sound extremely painful to him.
It shares the same meaning as another idiom, to have a ‘level head‘. It must simply refer to the physical steadfastness of something screwed down tightly and straight. There is no danger of it coming loose. A head that is screwed down is not going to produce crazy ideas.
Definition: To study for a test or exam
Example: Having scored a measly twenty percent on his last math test, Robert decided it was time to hit the books.
There is no golden explanation for the origin for ‘hit the books’. Used since the mid twentieth century, it is probably related to other similar phrases that used ‘hit’ as a way of expressing starting something… phrases like ‘hit the trail‘ or ‘hit the road‘. If you are ‘hitting the books‘, you are starting to read them. Simple as that.
Iddy’s a bit disappointed. He was hoping for a Victorian tale of a bare knuckle boxer who challenged a library to a fight.
Definition: To set a limit or refuse to proceed any further
Example: Mindy had to draw the line when her husband brought a pot-bellied pig home instead of a puppy. It was her or the pig.
There are a number of theories as to what specific drawn line in history gave birth to this idiom. Here’s a sampling.
When tennis was introduced to the English from France in the 1400s, there were no official dimensions for the court. It was up to the players to draw out the lines that the ball could not cross.
In seventeenth century rural England, farmers ploughed a line with their horses to define their holdings.
During prizefights, a line was drawn in the ring that the fighters could not cross or they would be disqualified.
A line was drawn in the chamber between the opposing parties. Politics were obviously much more exciting in the past. Fights were common, and the line was an attempt to reduce this. Fists were obviously in use, but more worryingly, so were swords.
Definition: Something that grabs your attention, especially an image or written description in a book
Example: The novel’s main character, Harry the two-headed chimp, really jumped off the page.
Iddy couldn’t find anything to enrich the explanation of ‘jump off the page‘, not even how long it has been in use. The meaning is quite evident, that something striking on a printed page will engage your imagination and come alive.
In his illustration, Iddy’s just realised he didn’t check how high up that page was before he jumped from it. I suppose that introduces him to the ancient advice ‘Look before you leap’….
Definition: To show a keen interest
Example: “I’m all ears!” Karen said to her sister, sensing there was some juicy gossip to be heard.
‘All ears‘ first appeared in print in the eighteenth century. Its origin is purely descriptive. As we use our ears to hear, and most of our communication is done verbally, to be ‘all ears’ means to focus all your attention on hearing what is being said.
Iddy is not enjoying his new look. He has often complained about a general lack of ears, but now he has these, things have become ridiculous!
Definition: Be quiet! Don’t say that!
Example: Hillary wanted to tell Donald what she really thought of him, but instead she bit her tongue and kept quiet.
‘Bite your tongue‘ is a popular phrase originates at least to the time of Shakespeare. He used a variation of it in Henry VI.
It is supposed it refers to the fact that if you hold your tongue between your teeth, it is impossible to speak. Alternatively, perhaps it is a proposed form of punishment. Say something nasty, and you should be forced to chomp down. After all, biting your tongue is extremely painful.
There are a couple of closely related phrases:
“Hold your tongue” which has the identical meaning. ‘Hold’ in this instance means to stop, not to literally take hold of it.
“Wash your mouth out (with soap)” for when somebody has used profanities.
Iddy has had his fair share of having his mouth washed out over the years. A mouth that big is bound to get you into trouble….