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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.
Definition: Something very easy to do
Example: After six months of weight training, a dozen all-you-can-eat buffets, and a two day fast, winning the pie eating contest was a piece of cake for Bradley.
It is thought that this phrase may have come from contests, popular in the 1870s, where a cake was the prize. Not cash. Not cruise tickets. A cake.
A second, darker theory, is that it originates from a humiliating tradition that occurred in slave states. Pairs of slaves were made to circle a cake, and the most ‘graceful’ pair would win the baked goods. Iddy’s not sure how the heck that particular tradition came to be and he doesn’t really want to know either.
In all likelihood, it may have come to be simply from the fact that eating a piece of cake is probably one of the easiest, most joyful things most people can do.
Iddy doesn’t care about any of it. He just wants to eat that chunk of sugary delight. And the heck with the calories.
Definition: To begin before everything is ready.
Example: Joe realised too late that he had jumped the gun trying out his newly assembled bike at the store. The mechanic hadn’t put the seat on yet. The store was very good about the whole situation though. They offered to call him an ambulance.
Exported around the English speaking world from the United States, jump the gun dates back to the 1830s. It has its roots in track and field sporting events, referring to somebody starting the race before the starter’s pistol has been fired. Blindingly obvious once pointed out, isn’t it? It was frequently quoted as ‘beat the gun’ as well, though that usage seems to have died out.
Definition: doing something extravagantly
Example: After a small win on the lottery, the Johnsons have been living high on the hog. They eat out at Burger King now rather than McDonalds.
‘High on the hog‘ is usually preceded by ‘living‘ or more rarely ‘eating‘. There are a few of theories as to its origin, but one seems more widely accepted than the others.
- Meat was not eaten as often as it is in recent times. It was expensive, and for working families, a treat rather than an everyday meal. So, somebody who was ‘high‘ on the ‘hog‘ was eating a lot of pork, and by deduction, must have money to spend.
- Piglets that suckle from the upper row of teats generally grow bigger and stronger than their lower row brethren. Apparently this is true, something to do with milk flow. Ask a vet if you want to know more. So, those thriving piglets are ‘high on the hog‘.
- The most widely accepted genesis is to do with the cuts of pork. The choicest ones come from the upper parts of the pig. These were the most expensive, and eaten by the middle and upper classes. The lower cuts; the belly, legs, and trotters were cheaper and eaten by the working classes.
Apparently there is an opposite phrase: living ‘low on the hog‘, but Iddy’s never heard it used before. He certainly wouldn’t want to be enacting that one.
Definition: To lose your temper
Example: Ruby was going to blow her top when she saw the muddy footprints on her brand new rug.
Blowing your top. Iddy’s an expert at this one.
There are similar idioms, meaning the same thing. Not only can you blow your top, you can also blow your stack or your lid.
All of these phrases probably date to the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s and the widespread use of steam power. Steam, unless carefully controlled and monitored, can build up great pressure very quickly, exploding out of the weakest point. Blowing your stack is very much related to this threat, as a smokestack would be a weak point.
A similar pressure threat exists with oil wells as well, and some sources argue that the idiom comes from that process instead.
Whatever the case, the phrase is a very visual one and reminds us all of Saturday Morning cartoons where steam jets out of a character’s ears. If only Iddy was so lucky to have blown steam from just his ears. He’s gone and lost the top of his skull. Its going to take him hours to find that thing.
Definition: An extremely attractive/sexy woman, specifically a blonde one
Example: Distracted by the blonde bombshell stepping out of the salon, Joe ran his new car straight into a telephone pole.
The ‘bombshell’ part of the idiom has been used to describe attractive women since the mid-nineteenth century. The reason why is unclear. The ‘blonde’ bit is easier to quantify. In 1933, actress Jean Harlow became the blonde bit. Her movie ‘Bombshell’ was released in the US, but the title was changed to ‘Blonde Bombshell’ for the UK release as audiences were mistaking it for a war movie. It was accompanied by racy taglines like ‘Lovely, luscious, exotic Jean Harlow as the Blonde Bombshell of filmdom’. With a tagline like that, no wonder the phrase stuck.
Incidentally, Harlow was also referred to as the ‘platinum blonde‘, a title awarded to her by Howard Hughes’ publicity department. They had tried other titles that weren’t quite so hot. The blonde landslide. The darling cyclone. Platinum blonde is infinitely better than either of those.
She died of kidney failure at the age of just 26. Some claim her death was hastened by her weekly use of chemicals like peroxide to keep her hair that famous colour.
Definition: To sit in the front passenger seat
Example: John wanted to ride shotgun as his elderly Aunts were sitting in the back and they smelled of wee.
It’s a term from the Wild West, isn’t it? Everybody knows that.
Well, yes and no.
There were indeed stagecoaches criss-crossing the American southwest during the nineteenth century. And sometimes, there were indeed shotgun toting men riding alongside the driver to protect whatever they were carrying. All true.
The problem is that the phrase doesn’t seem to have been used at all at the time. In all likelihood, it was a Hollywood invention used in the hundreds of Westerns pumped out by the studios, culminating in one simply called ‘Riding Shotgun’ in 1954 (starring Randolph Scott and a very young Charles Bronson).
The phrase can still be used in the sense of literally riding along as protection, either as a bodyguard, or as armed security in armoured vans. More commonly, it is used in the harmless sense of riding beside the driver on a car journey, often claimed on the way to the car with the cry of “I call shotgun!”
Definition: The power of the police and judicial system
Example: Terry thought that nobody could catch him for robbing the bank dressed as Mickey Mouse, but the long arm of the law tracked him down.
The long arm of the law refers to the far reaching powers of law enforcement authorities and is a very visual phrase. Just picture those long arms reaching for you…..
Its first usage seems to have referred to royalty, coined in the sixteenth century phrase ‘Kings have long arms’.
By the nineteenth century, it was law enforcement that had long arms in common language. In fact, the law’s arm had more than mere length. They had strength as well, described in another common phrase, less used today, ‘the strong arm of the law‘. At the end of those long and strong arms, yet another phrase described ‘the strong hand of the law‘. This particular one seems to refer to the practise of the police laying a hand upon your shoulder when arresting you. This habit coined a fourth phrase, that of the arrest being ‘a collar‘, as often the guilty party tried to take flight and the officer grabbed the first thing available…. his collar.
So. Four phrases. All from the single idea that justice will find you, no matter where you hide.
Iddy doesn’t care about that though. He just wants to know how he’s ever going to get his arm back to the right length.
Definition: Tell a secret
Example: After three hours intensive grilling by her friends, Sharon finally broke down to spill the beans about her night out with the vicar.
‘Spill the beans’ is one of several idioms , similarly phrased, with the same meaning. There’s ‘Spill the soup‘, ‘Spill your guts‘, or the simple and to the point command, ‘Spill!” Spill is used in the manner of letting something out. But beans? Why beans?
There is a widely discounted explanation to do with ancient Greece. Voting in some situations called for the anonymous placing of beans in an urn. White for ‘Yay‘. Black for ‘Nay‘. The vote had to be unanimous. So, if somebody knocked over the urn before voting was complete revealing even a single black one, thus ‘spilling the beans‘, the vote was ruined. Sounds excellent. However, there are two millennia between those alleged bean votes and the introduction of the phrase into language.
That first modern usage dates back to early 20th century America. Its meaning then was subtly different, more like talking out of turn and causing trouble. A bit like the wartime slogan ‘Loose lips sink ships‘.
Iddy’s still not sure why it is beans that need to be spilled. He’d prefer toffees. Or caramels.