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Definition: A very important person
Example: Mr. Peabody was a big wig in town. After all, he owned most of it.
Its not a great stretch of the imagination to figure out how the phrase ‘big wig‘ came to be.
It owes a lot to the Sun King himself, Louis XIII. Louis was bald, or ‘follicly challenged’ as he preferred his condition to be described. So, he took to wearing wigs. His group of hangers-on in the court of Versailles took to wearing them as well. Then, the rest of the French aristocracy. Then the the rest of the upper echelon of Europe followed suit. And then the competition began. The bigger, the more extravagant the wig, the better. Decoration was widely encouraged.
Obviously, the buying and maintenance of such extraordinary constructions were an expensive business. Only the wealthiest, most influential people could afford them. As a rule of thumb; the bigger the wig, the more important the person.
On a little side note, before these piles of hairs became known as ‘wigs’, they were known by the more flowery term ‘periwigs’. Iddy thinks the world is a slightly sadder place with the shortening of the term.
Definition: the leader or boss
Example: Roger was top banana at the office. Ironically, the office was responsible for banana sales across the Pacific Northwest.
‘Top banana’ originated in 1920s burlesque comedy, specifically in the use of the fruit as a punchline.
There is debate as to who the particular comedian was, with several names listed by several sources. It’s possible, that as the banana was relatively new at the time and very strange to the average person, it was used as a gag by plenty of Vaudeville performers.
The phrase first came to describe the performer at the top of the evening’s bill. The act listed below the headliner became known as ‘second banana‘. Both phrases are still used in the entertainment industry today.
The idiom later crept into more common usage. Now, people outside the entertainment industry can be described in terms of strangely shaped yellow fruit. Its a dream come true for all of us.
Definition: A creative group technique to stimulate ideas
Example: Doyle and his two co-workers spent most of the day brainstorming a name for the client’s new biscuits. The best they could come up with was “Yummies’. They did manage to eat all the samples though.
Iddy’s not sure if brainstorming is a true idiom, or simply a term, but it confused the heck out of him, so here we go…
It was coined by advertising executive Alex F. Osborn in the 1950s. It was a technique he pioneered when he realised individuals were not coming up with many ideas within his agency. Throwing them together in a room, probably with lots of coffee, yielded far more creative ideas.
He had four components to create the perfect brainstorming session:
- QUANTITY. The more ideas, the better
- NO CRITICS. There is no such thing as a bad idea at the session.
- BE WILD. Encourage crazy thinking
- COMBINE TO IMPROVE. Throw ideas together to see if they can complement each other.
Now sit back and watch the creative lightning rain down from the heavens!
Definition: Stay out of trouble!
Example: Robby tried his best to keep his nose clean as he didn’t want to go back to prison. But the wedding cake in the bakery window was begging to be stolen.
There are a lot of claims as to the origin of this idiom…
1) It is a 1970s reference to cocaine usage, but the term predates this assertion by a century.
2) It is a childhood warning about personal hygiene and the spreading of germs through runny noses. There seems to be little supporting evidence for this.
3) It is a warning over the abuse of alcohol, that the foam from an upturned glass of beer ‘dirties’ the nose. Still not sold.
What we do know is that there was an earlier UK English phrase ‘keep your hands clean‘ which upon crossing the Atlantic to America, somehow morphed into keep your nose clean. It then returned to the UK and replaced the original phrase. Its meaning changed as well during its ocean crossing. The first version had more of a personal hygiene meaning, but in the States it took on more of a avoiding corruption twist. Most recently however, it seems to relate exclusively to the world of crime. Somebody keeping their nose clean is staying out of criminal activity.
Iddy’s had to borrow somebody else’s nose in order to illustrate the idiom. He doesn’t have one of his own.
Definition: To be kind or generous
Example: Despite the fact that Bella frowns her way through life, she actually has a heart of gold.
Having a heart of gold has been with us for quite some time. It appears in William Shakespeare’s play Henry V, written about 1599. The simple explanation is that gold was, and still is, thought of as both pure and precious. These are characteristics you can apply to somebody’s personality, and thus, their heart.
Iddy doesn’t have a gold one himself. I don’t know who he stole that one from. His own is probably made of the blackest carbon. Don’t let that smile fool you!
Definition: To be in a comfortable place, especially in a financial sense
Example: Mr. Morgan was sitting pretty after finding pirate treasure while digging in his garden.
‘Sitting pretty’ is almost exclusively used in the US, and is relatively new, not surfacing until the twentieth century. There are no specific theories flying about concerning where it came from. It probably is simply the marriage of two positive words. Sitting is a comfortable position and pretty is generally considered to be a good thing. That’s it.
Iddy doesn’t look very comfortable though, does he? Relax Iddy. You look good in a floral print.
Definition: To stay calm, composed, and collected
Example: Despite the intense pressure, Stan stayed cool as a cucumber and defeated his five-year-old nephew in the game of tiddlywinks.
This is a strange one. How somebody’s bearing under pressure should be compared to a vegetable is not just unclear, it’s totally nonsensical on every level. Yes, cucumbers are cool to the touch, and can be as much as twenty degrees cooler inside than the outside air, but the cool in the phrase has nothing to do with temperature. And it’s older than you might think. Its first appearance in print is in a 1732 poem by John Gay.
Iddy, as pictured, has used the 1970’s derived definition of cool, that of somebody socially admired. Just like the Fonz was on Happy Days. Funny. Looking at him, you’d never have thought Iddy to be in awe of custom motorcycles….
Definition: A business venture that generates great profits for little investment
Example: Popcorn was the cash cow for the local cinema.
Cash cow is a very recent addition to the language. Management expert Peter F Drucker is credited with coining the phrase in the 1960s where it quickly became a buzzword in the business community. It relates to the notion that once a dairy cow reaches maturity, it provides a endless flow of milk, which in turn becomes a revenue stream for the farmer. Nice notion, but I’m sure that any dairy farmer would disagree. Its not quite as easy (or profitable) as that.
The business world is notorious for creating their own idioms. Anything to mask the meaning of what they are actually saying. Here are some of Iddy’s favourites:
Rooster call: an early meeting
Run it up the flagpole (and see if anybody salutes): put forward an idea
Monday morning quarterback: somebody who criticises something only after it has gone wrong
Blue ocean opportunity: a promising possibility
Iddy could go on. But he won’t. He has to get to bed early because he has a rooster call tomorrow. He wants to run a blue ocean opportunity up the flagpole before some Monday morning quarterback causes problems.
Definition: Silliness or mischieviousness
Example: ‘Hey! You two! No more monkey business from either of you!’ Johnny and Jackie’s nanny was not enjoying being tied to a tree.
People have been described in terms of animal traits for as long as pen has been put to paper. Foxes for slyness, lions for bravery, and monkeys, lots of monkeys. It seems fairly apparent why monkeys are equated with silly antics. But when and where did it enter the English language?
There do seem to be several theories:
- Firstly, it may be a by-product of the English colonial era in India. Bandrami is a Bengali term for naughty or reckless behaviour by children, child-like behaviour by adults, or monkey like gestures. It altered into the more literal ‘monkey business’ in the 1830s as it was absorbed into English..
- A second theory proposes that it grew out of a related phrase ‘monkeyshines‘ which meant disreputable behaviour, coined at about the same time in America. It was basically a racist taunt aimed at slaves.
- Lastly, perhaps it grew from an even earlier UK phrase ‘monkey tricks‘ used in the same way to describe foolish behaviour from children.
Never mind the origin, Iddy’s more concerned that he has found the reason for the recent problems on Wall Street.
Iddy’s back after a break, starting with this one for Olivia and her Middle School class who are studying animal based idioms… what better place to start than Crocodile Tears?
Definition: A fake or insincere demonstration of sorrow
Example: Belinda shed crocodile tears at Bernie’s funeral. After all, she’d been the one who had shot him.
Can crocodiles cry?
The idiom comes from an ancient belief that crocodiles cried when devouring their prey. A very strange concept; remorseful reptiles! The phrase reached the English language at the beginning of the 15th century, but in the form of crocodiles ‘weeping’. It was another hundred years before our current phrasing began to appear.
So back to our question. Do they cry? Apparently they do, but not from emotion. Certainly not from remorse. Iddy was surprised that crocodiles have tear ducts at all. Seems a bit redundant for a creature that lives in the water. But it is for that very reason that they do have tears. When they do venture from those waters, their eyes tend to dry out, and so the need for tears.
Having established that they do indeed shed tears, a neurologist decided to go one step further in 2006. He observed caimans while they fed at a refuge in Florida. Closely related to their larger counterparts, several of them did ‘cry’ while feeding, though the actual reason is still debated. However, not a single scientist came forward and claimed it was remorse.
There is a rare medical condition, Bogorad’s syndrome, which causes people to shed tears while they eat. Unsurprisingly, it is sometimes referred to as ‘Crocodile Tears Syndrome’.