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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
Definition: To think differently or from a new perspective
Example: Lloyd really had to think outside the box to find a believable explanation for his lack of trousers at the church service.
There are a number of variations on this idiom. You can think ‘beyond the box‘, ‘out of the box‘, or in Australia, ‘outside the square’.
Its origin appears to come very late in the history of the English language, specifically from business speech in the 1970s and 80s. A popular on the spot challenge in management companies was solving the ‘9 dot puzzle‘, where you had to attempt to join the 9 dots of a grid with 4 straight lines- no lifting of the pen or retracing of lines allowed. The puzzle itself is much older, first appearing in print in 1914. The solution to the challenge (spoilers ahead!) is using the lines beyond the extent of the dots themselves, or the perceived box they form.
Iddy appears to be thinking very hard indeed outside of this particular box. He is. That’s because he’s been kicked out of his apartment by his landlord for practising the tuba in the early morning hours. If he doesn’t think of a solution to his problem, he’s going to be sleeping in that box tonight. And there’s no room in there for his tuba.
IN ONE EAR AND OUT THE OTHER
Definition: Something heard but then immediately forgotten.
Example: The traffic cop’s advice to Slim went straight in one ear and out the other. So twenty minutes later, he received another speeding ticket from another traffic cop.
A version of this phrase goes all the way back to the first century AD and ancient Rome. Educator and orator Quintilian is quoted as having said ” The things he says flow straight through the ears”. Over the intervening centuries, the phrase slowly changed until it is what we know today. Who knows, in another few centuries, it may change again. That’s the thing about language. It’s always in a state of flux.
Despite his apparent lack of ears, advice is constantly going in one side of Iddy’s head and out the other. As well as assorted small flying creatures.
HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE
Definition: Something heard unofficially or indirectly through rumour and gossip
Example: Sally heard it through the grapevine that her husband had gone to a sing-along screening of ‘Frozen‘ without her.
You can hardly hear this idiom without immediately humming along to the classic track by Marvin Gaye; it’s just that synonymous.
And what do you know…. we have a definitive origin for it.! So please read it as you hum….
It’s American, from the 1800s, and has to do with the newfangled technology that was sweeping the nation at the time: the telegraph. It was a mammoth undertaking in its day. Thousands of miles of telegraph poles and wires crossing vast distances, It was thought the combination of regularly positioned poles and the wires strung between them resembled the poles and strings used in vineyards to train and grow the grapes, so the telegraph lines soon became referred to as the grapevine. In the Civil War, rumours were spread via the telegraph, and so was born the phrase!
Iddy’s particular grapevine is a noisy little lot, but they do have some juicy gossip to spread!
CUT THE MUSTARD
Definition: To reach or exceed expectations or standards, often used negatively.
Example: Roger couldn’t cut the mustard and was eliminated from the World Tiddlywinks Championships in the first hour.
There have been many attempts to relate this phrase to ‘passing muster’, where soldiers are approved on the parade ground or by their skill set, but alas, that explanation hasn’t really gained any credible acceptance. It doesn’t seem to ‘cut the mustard’. Sorry. Just had to say it. There have also been suggestions that it might have to do with the actual harvesting of the crop, but yet again, there seems to be no basis for this.
It does seem to originate in late nineteenth century America, and come from the long established use of the word ‘mustard’ as a superlative. Its use meant to add spice or zing to something, just like the condiment itself. There are earlier related phrases: to be ‘keen as mustard’, or to be genuine and ‘proper mustard’.
The word itself comes from the Latin mustum, which in English became must, the juice squeezed from grapes before it is made into wine. Mustard gained its name because originally, its seeds were ground into paste with the must to make the condiment.
Give it a few minutes, but Iddy will eventually realise that to get into this particular big yellow bottle, all he needs to do is open the top and squeeze…
PULL YOUR SOCKS UP
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.
TAKING THE BISCUIT
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.
OFF YOUR ROCKER
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.
COST AN ARM AND A LEG
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.
THAT OLD CHESTNUT
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.
GET (OR HAVE) YOUR DUCKS IN A ROW
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!