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No no no Iddy! You’ve got it all wrong!
It’s not ‘get an Eiffel’!
It’s- ‘GET AN EYEFUL’!
Definition: To look at somebody or something for a long time, or to see something visually striking or possibly shocking.
Example: Roger got an eyeful when he opened the bathroom door and saw his Grandmother sitting there. That was an image that was going to haunt him for a very long time.
Iddy couldn’t find anything at all about getting an eyeful. When it was first used. Nothing. Where it originated. More nothing.
He’d been hoping for a bit of explanation. After all, with those big old eyes of his, he’s always getting an eye full of something. Just last week, when he was cleaning his apartment, he got some dust in his eye. Problem was, it was still attached to the broom.
Definition: A shameful secret, one that could ruin an individual’s reputation.
Example: Every family has a skeleton in the closet. The Jones’ was that Grandpa had been arrested for streaking at the age of 79.
‘Skeleton in the closet’ is a common American idiom, although it has become more common in the UK in recent years. Previously, it was expressed as ‘skeleton in the cupboard’ there. Why? Closet was a short form of ‘water closet’ in the UK. A water closet is a toilet and a toilet probably isn’t an ideal place to hide a skeleton. As the use of ‘water closet’ dies out in UK English, so the use of ‘skeleton in the closet’ increases.
Have we bored you yet?
The first printed use of the phrase was in 1816, but who inspired the image of skeletal corpses hanging in bedroom cabinets is unclear.
Unsurprisingly, there are suggestions to fill the void.
Theory the first:
‘Skeleton in the closet’ arose from the UK practise of body snatching. Prior to 1832 and the Anatomy Act, there was a distinct shortage of corpses for medical schools to teach anatomy and dissection. The only permissible specimens were those of executed criminals, and there were simply not enough to go around. A lucrative black market trade sprang up around this shortage. Freshly buried corpses mysteriously vanished across the country, finding their way to medical schools.
The most notorious case was that of Burke and Hare who couldn’t wait for people to die naturally, and took to murdering their victims and selling their corpses immediately. Iddy supposes it saved a lot of hard labour. After all, digging up bodies is a lot of work.
Thus, ‘skeleton in the closet’ springs from the fact that the doctors involved had to keep their illicit dissection subjects hidden away, perhaps in closets. Sounds possible. But there is no direct evidence to support it. Maybe it’s just another of those gloriously grisly stories that seems to spring up whenever nobody knows the true origin of a phrase.
Theory the second
This tale relates to a true life skeleton in a closet , though it is far from hidden away. Jeremy Bentham was a prominent British philosopher and reformist of the 18th and 19th centuries. Upon his death, he had made preparations to have his body preserved. And so it was. His skeleton and mummified head were posed in a cabinet and dressed in his clothes. He’s still on display at University College London.
Sounds great, but alas, his preservation came after the first usages of the phrase.
Iddy doesn’t care where that skeleton came from. He just wants it out of his closet.
Definition: Something minor or trivial that is blown out of all proportion.
Example: The debate at the Christmas dinner table over which side of the plate to put the dessert spoon soon developed into a storm in a teacup, with Grandma hitting Uncle Bob squarely between the eyes with her own spoon.
Storm in a teacup is the UK version of the phrase, Tempest in a teapot, the American.
Why there is so much inclement weather in drinking vessels is a bit unclear. However, what is apparent, is that same weather is not restricted just to teacups and teapots.
In 1678, there is record of a storm in a cream bowl. In 1830, there is a storm in a wash-hand basin. It is not until 1825 that the American rendition of tempest in a teapot is reported in a Scottish publication, and another 13 years until the UK version of storm in a teacup appears, also from Scotland.
There are variations on the theme in other languages. The Roman poet, Cicero, refers to ‘stirring up billows in a ladle’ back in 52 BC. The Dutch, to this day, experience a storm in a glass of water. The Hungarians have the most unhygienic storm; a tempest in a potty.
Iddy’s relieved that he didn’t need to check that one out.
Definition: A coward
Example: Maurice proved to be a yellow-belly when the mouse appeared and he ran from the room screaming.
Yellow-belly, in its current meaning, is a wholly American introduction to the English language.
The term did exist previously in UK English, but with a totally different meaning. It was an insulting term for the poor folk that lived in the marshy Fens of Lincolnshire. It is not clear why. Some say it may have been due to the general waxen complexion of those people. After all, living in a swamp is not the healthiest of places. Others think it may have been a deeper insult, comparing the peoples’ bellies to the bellies of eels, a staple food at the time.
Another tale comes from the ancient Gaelic sport of ‘hurling’, a combination of football, hockey. rugby, and just about everything else in-between. In the late 1500s, the team from Wexford played Cornwall with yellow cloths tied about their waists. They came to be known as the Yellowbellies. To this day, the Wexford side is still named that, and have traded the cloths for yellow jerseys. There are no indications that the players were anything but perfect gentlemen. No reports of cowardice here!
For that, we must cross the Atlantic. And to some good old fashioned racism. It seems that the phrase came into usage in the mid-1800s during the Mexican-American War, to describe Mexican soldiers. It is as unclear why the colour yellow was chosen. Whatever the reason, it was unlikely to be a good one. Perhaps a reference to skin colour. Perhaps, like the eels in Lincolnshire, a reference to the bellies of snakes and lizards.
It was Hollywood Westerns that really cemented the term, and its meaning of cowardice. Hardly a movie passed without the calling out of a ‘yellow-bellied varmint‘.
Iddy’s not sure if yellow suits him.
Definition: An angry outlook fostered by a grievance, grudge, or low self-esteem.
Example: “Don’t mind him,” Lois told her secretary. “John’s got a chip on his shoulder since I beat him in the hot dog eating competition.”
First of all, chips aren’t sexist. They can sit on her shoulder as easily as his.
Secondly, the chip referred to is a wood chip, not one made of deep fried potato, nor the kind Iddy models here, a silicon chip.
As for the chip’s origin, there appear to be two possibilities:
- In the 1700s, dockyard workers in England had job benefits other workers did not. They were allowed to take scrap wood from the construction and repair of ships home, for construction or firewood. Specifically, the Navy Council declared in 1739 that they could remove as much as they could carry upon their shoulder (subject to inspection by their superiors, of course). Later, that allowance was reduced to as much as they could carry under one arm. This became a grievance among the dockers. So, it appears we have all the elements needed to form our idiom. Chips. Shoulders. Grievances. One little hitch though. There is close to 200 years between this episode and the arrival of our phrase around 1930.
- It is more likely it is derived from manly shenanigans in the US during the 1800s. There was a custom of placing a small piece of wood (or chip) upon your shoulder and daring others to knock it off, followed by more serious fighting involving fists, kicks, and broken teeth. Sounds very entertaining. Remember. These fellows didn’t have 94 episodes of Sex and the City to entertain them.
Iddy had a very difficult time illustrating this idiom. Mainly because he really doesn’t have shoulders….
Definition: Skilled at gardening/growing plants
Example: Simone definitely possessed a green thumb. Her sunflowers were so large, she was going to need a chainsaw to cut them down.
Gardeners were originally described as having ‘green fingers‘ in the UK in the 1930s. In the US, the phrase surfaced as ‘green thumb‘ a decade later, where it has remained the sole term. Meanwhile, back in the UK, ‘green thumb‘ appeared alongside its original incarnation, and both are used today.
Its no great stretch of the imagination to make the connection between green fingers or thumbs and somebody who works in a garden. It is said to specifically relate to the handling of clay pots, where the green algae that builds up along their rim stains the handler’s hands.
A widely disputed origin claims it relates to King Edward I. Apparently he loved green peas. Kitchen staff were put into competition to find who could shell the most peas, the best sheller receiving a prize. All the participants were rewarded with green stained thumbs for their efforts.
Iddy doesn’t think this sounds plausible. If hundreds of hours of watching TV has taught him one thing, it is that Kings don’t love green peas. They love beheadings and getting rid of their wives. In fact, a King likes nothing more than an activity that combines both of those.
Iddy also had a bit of difficulty illustrating this idiom. After all, he already has a green thumb. If you want to be really picky about his interpretation, he’s actually illustrating a ‘greener thumb.’
Definition: To watch something without being seen yourself
Example: Barbara would love to be a fly on the wall when Marcie discovers the truth about her boyfriend.
Flies have long been noted in literature for their ability to be unseen. Centuries, in fact. As such, authors have expressed an interest in being flies for the purpose of watching events unseen. It was originally expressed as “if I were a fly...’ The current expression seems to have appeared in the early 1900s in America, at least in print.
It is commonly used in describing ‘fly on the wall’ documentaries, films normally covering the day to day life of individuals where the presence of the camera and crew are unseen.
Iddy is no fan of six-legged, disease spreading, flying vermin.
But then again, he prefers them to his Auntie Vera. Not only can she fly and spread disease, she has eight legs.
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.