Definition: Correct your behaviour or attitude/ make a better effort
Example: Having missed two shifts in a row, Doug’s boss told him to pull his socks up or he would be looking for a new job. Ironically, Doug worked at a sock manufacturing company.
As usual, there are a couple of theories as to how this idiom came to be. No surprise there.
First, it may have to do with children presenting themselves neatly in their school uniforms, originating in the Victorian era. You can imagine a headmaster barking out those orders. “Button that blazer! Straighten that tie! Pull up those socks!”
Secondly, and more widely accepted, it has to with running. Long before the era of artificial fibres and designer trainers/ running shoes, competitive runners wore long socks with their shoes. It wasn’t really a good look, but fashion at the time demanded it. In preparation for the starting blocks, the athletes would make their last minute adjustments, including pulling up those ungainly socks. The fashion and the entry of the phrase into the English language tie up quite neatly in the 1800’s.
Iddy’s having some difficulty pulling up his own socks. It may have something to do with having no feet.
Definition: When a situation that is already bad or irritating gets even worse
Example: When Joe’s car broke down in the pouring rain in the middle of nowhere, he discovered he’d forgotten to charge his phone as well. “That takes the biscuit!” was his response. Actually, there were some other words too, but we can’t publish them here.
In the UK, a situation ‘takes the biscuit’.
In the US, the same situation ‘takes the cake’.
The idiom seems to have originated as cake Stateside before travelling across the Atlantic to become a biscuit. But why a cake in the first place?
It seems to have similar origins to ‘Piece of Cake’, which we have covered previously here. In that exploration, we heard of a demeaning slave state practice, where pairs of slaves were walked around a cake, and the pair deemed to have done so with the most style, won that cake. How the meaning went from a positive one (if you can see it that way, having won a cake through a demeaning contest) to a wholly negative one is unclear. Perhaps this isn’t the root of this idiom at all.
Iddy is blissfully ignorant of all of this. This particular biscuit will keep him fed for at least two meals. Now all he needs is a giant glass of milk or several litres of hot tea to go with it.
Definition: to be mentally unstable/crazy
Martin proudly presented the sandwich he had made to his family. “It’s peanut butter and turkey,” he announced.
“Are you off your rocker?!” was the response.
First of all, this idiom doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t have to be ‘your’ rocker. It can be his, her, or theirs.
But what is this rocker it refers to? The image and explanation that most commonly comes to mind is somebody, especially an elderly person, physically falling off their rocking chair. This doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the idiom as this points to a physical issue, not a mental one.
The origin is most likely a mechanical one.
Within many machines, a rocker is a sort of regulator which helps control its performance. If this rocker slips or becomes misaligned, the machine will work incorrectly, if at all.
There is a similar phrase with the same meaning which appeared in the English language at the same time, to be ‘Off your trolley‘. This seems to refer to the overhead lines that provide power to trolley cars. If the car loses contact with this line, there is a loss of power and the trolley grinds to a halt. There are some claims that the wheel that made this connection was sometimes referred to as a rocker, but whether it was or not, it is clear that the two idioms are likely from the same source.
Iddy’s never hopped on or off a trolley car. It’s probably a good thing as he has a hard enough time just sitting in a chair.
Definition: something extremely expensive
Example: Randolph wanted an indoor swimming pool. As much as Julie wanted one herself, she had to be the reasonable one. “Are you kidding? That would cost an arm and a leg!”
Okay. Let’s get the most commonly believed origin story out of the way, because there’s no truth to it.
Portrait painters, over the past centuries, had a fixed price for a standard head and shoulders portrait. If you wanted the torso included, the portrait would be more expensive. If you wanted the full body painted, that would be still more. Though it is likely true that a full body portrait would cost more than a traditional head and shoulders one, it is unlikely the artists charged by the limb! On top of that, the phrase doesn’t appear to have entered the language until after the Second World War, well after the age of portrait painting.
It is more likely to have come from an earlier nineteenth century phrase, often expressed in terms similar to ‘I’d give my right arm for that’, though there were left varieties of the phrase, as well as other limbs and organs quoted. In other languages, there are phrases that seem to support this. In France, something may ‘Cost the eyes from your head’. In Bulgaria, something may ‘Cost your Mother and Father’.
Another explanation ties in with the idiom’s introduction to the English language after the war. Many soldiers returned home to America (where the phrase appears to have originated) missing limbs. This indeed was a high price to pay for their country. It had cost them an arm and a leg.
I really don’t want to know where Iddy got his extra limbs from.
Definition: A story told again and again and again and…
” Have I ever told you about the time I went skiing?” Hal asked his dinner guests.
“Oh no,” said his wife,”Not that old chestnut!”
Despite a gap between its first appearance on stage to its common use in the English language, it is widely agreed that this idiom originates from the play ‘Broken Sword’ in 1816. Now forgotten, the play was a commercial success at the time.
In it, one character begins to tell a tale about being struck by a falling chestnut. He is quickly interrupted by another with the words “… this is the twenty-seventh time I have heard you relate this story…”
True to its usage in the play, the first recorded uses of the phrase simply refer to ‘that chestnut’, with ‘old’ being added later in the century.
Iddy is a bit worried about this particular old chestnut. He’s about to cross a busy road. At his age, he must be nuts.
Definition: Have everything organised and prepared
Example: “You’ll need to get your ducks in a row,” Janet said to Bob ahead of his court date over his 132 unpaid parking tickets.
Once again, one idiom, many possibilities…
- Probably the most straightforward explanation is that the phrase alludes to the way a mother duck will lead her ducklings in a single file.
- Perhaps it refers to carnival sideshow shooting galleries where the player attempts to knock down targets on conveyor belts with an air rifle. The targets are often wildfowl, and it is indeed easier to knock down multiple targets if they are lined up in an even row.
- Maybe stretching the guns and wildfowl theory a bit too far, there are suggestions it may have to do with 20th century hunting licenses and quotas in the USA, where hunters shot ducks on a point system which they were not meant to exceed. If a game warden demanded to see what the hunter had procured, they would have to lay their ducks out in a row for inspection.
- In both shipbuilding and aircraft design, the splines that form the skeleton of the ship or aircraft fuselage are shaped with the assistance of weights known as ‘ducks’. To get an even shape, the engineer would have to ensure all their ducks are in a row.
Take your favourite theory and present it as fact in your next conversation. That’s how the origins of phrases become the mountains of disinformation they are!
Iddy’s not sure which theory he sides with, but one thing is certain – nobody’s going to be shooting his ducks!
Definition: to go to bed/ to go to sleep
Example: After a long day of taking care of his young niece and nephew, John was exhausted, and as soon as dinner was finished, he announced that he was going to hit the hay.
Not surprisingly, ‘hit the hay’ is used in the same way as the idiom ‘hit the sack’. Both have been in common usage since the turn of the 20th century.
Many mattresses before modern times were little more than than linen or sacks stuffed with whatever material that was readily available. For many, that material was straw. Before getting into bed, people would strike the mattress to shape it into the most comfortable surface possible. There is some suggestion that the hitting of the mattress also helped to drive off any bugs also sheltering there.
Thus, ‘hit the hay’!
Iddy’s not getting much relaxation out of boxing with these hay-bales. In fact, they seem to be winning the fight.
Definition: Hurry up!
Example: “Get your skates on!” Martha yelled at her husband through the bathroom door. The airport was an hour’s drive away and their flight was leaving in forty-five minutes.
More commonly used in the UK and Australia, this idiom simply refers to the fact that someone wearing ice skates can travel faster than somebody on foot (assuming that they have the required ice to skate on). It originally referred to ice skates, but during the Victorian era, it expanded to refer to roller-skates as they gained public popularity and the first rinks opened.
As a side note, skating is remarkably quicker. The top speed of a human being on foot is about 45 km/h (That’s you, Mr Usain Bolt), but only for short sprints. The top sprint speed for a speed skater is close to 60 km/h. It’s over longer distances that the difference really begins to show. At 10 000m, the world record on skates is around 12 minutes 40 seconds. On foot it is around 26 minutes 18 seconds, more than twice the time.
This idiom is by request from Elaine who says that idioms are far too often taken literally in her family. So Iddy, you’re not alone!
Definition: A possession that is burdensome and costs more in terms of money or effort than it is worth. In British usage, it often specifically refers to a public project that has soaring costs with little perceived benefit.
Example: Rosie’s newly purchased Ferrari was a real white elephant. Sure, it looked great but the insurance was bankrupting her.
Iddy can’t believe it. This is an idiom that has a definitive origin!
In ancient Siam (modern day Thailand), white elephants were not only rare, but considered sacred. The Kings of Siam elevated their status by keeping white elephants. If one of the kings’ acquaintances displeased them, they were gifted one of the rare creatures. It may have seemed to be a great honour, but the cost of keeping the elephant and the duties required would soon bankrupt the individual.
The term came into the English language as early as the 1600’s but didn’t become common for another 200 years. There are claims that it gained popularity after PT Barnum, of Barnum and Bailey circus fame, spent great effort as well as plenty of cash to buy a white elephant from the then King of Siam, to discover that it really wasn’t white at all, just light grey.
The term also became associated with church sales during the 20th century, openly referred to as ‘white elephant sales’, where donors brought in their junk, like tacky ceramic figurines and mismatched plates, to be sold on for church fund-raising.
Definition: A strong, determined individual
Example: Dave fought off the motorcycle gang with nothing more than his bus pass and a copy of the New York Times. He was one tough cookie.
‘Tough cookie’ is predominantly an American phrase. You are unlikely to hear any self-respecting Brit using the term.
Iddy thinks this is one of the most ridiculous things he has heard so far. Why compare somebody hard, whether physically or mentally, to a cookie? Cookies are inherently sweet. Cookies are usually brittle. Cookies are the stuff of life itself.
Maybe there’s a clue in the word itself. ‘Cookie’ is a North American term. In the UK, cookies are called biscuits. No self-respecting Brit is ever going to ask for a cookie at a bakery.
The word itself is derived from the Dutch ‘koekje’, or ‘little cake’, and probably entered American English with Dutch settlers. Still no connection to being tough, unless those original Dutch settlers over-baked their koekjes.
In the 1920s, ‘cookie‘ became a slang term for a young woman. Just watch any old gangster movie about Prohibition. It will probably feature a ‘cookie‘ in it somewhere. The term does make some sort of sense, in that the young woman is sweet and desirable.
The first appearance of the now standard ‘tough cookie‘ is just after the end of World War II, but how the ‘tough’ became welded to the baked good is unknown. Also unclear is how the term then came to describe both sexes when it had previously been only applied to women.
So, no explanations from Iddy. And he still thinks it’s ridiculous.