Friday, September 6, 2013



Michael W. Davis

As a reader of fiction I’m always intrigued by a story when the author presents a snapshot of a lifestyle by using cliques from the era or location where they originated.  The following provide examples of what I mean. Before you look at the explanation, see if you can guess the origin of the phase.

1.       Red Light District - There are other meanings for other countries but in the 1900 timeframe in the USA, railroad workers used red lensed lanterns to signal trains and for safety while in the yard. When they diverted their attention to the pleasures provided inside a nearby brothel they’d hang their light outside the door in case they were needed back at work.

2.       Wrong side of the tracks – In the 1800’s, trains were a major means of long haul transportation. Unfortunately they used coal or wood to fuel their steam engine with the result of producing massive clouds of smoke, which depending on the location, would generally be blown to one side of the tracks. Given the unfavorable environment created by living on the wrong side (downwind of the tracks) those areas were typically used by the poorest in the community.

3.       Scruples - In colonial times an apothecary (pharmacist) would dispense costly medicine and chemicals in small quantities using a scale and metal weights called scruples. Apprentices were notorious for short weighing a customer’s order and pocketing the remainder for sell later. When they were caught they were scolded for misuse of their scruples.

4.       Mad hatter – This one is really cool and was the reason the title was assigned to the rabbit going down the hole in AIW. Seems that in the early to mid 1800’s mercury was used to coat the inner rim of fur felt hats to help form their shape, and as we all know now, such toxics do flunky things to the gray matter.

5.       No bones about it – This phase started back as far as 1400 AD in reference to someone that would have no qualms against doing a particular act. It’s based on the philosophy that soup with no bones could be devoured without hesitation or risk.

6.       Wrong end of the stick – Did you know that even back in the times of the Roman Empire this phase described someone on the downside of luck. You see, toilet paper hadn’t been invented yet so they used a stick with a sponge on top and if they grabbed the wrong end, well you get the picture.

7.       Everything but the kitchen sink – During WWII all metal scraps were critical to the war effort. Everything was collected and tossed into the recycle bins except porcelain sinks from the kitchen.

8.       Son of a gun – In the days of clipper ships sailors traveling to the West Indies would “take” the local women between the cannons. If a child resulted from the event he was referred to as a son of a gun, meaning illegitimate.

Feel free to use them in any of your stories pertaining to a related period, and if you have your own special ones, share with everyone in the comments.


Annabel Aidan said...

Oh, wow, those are great. Thanks so much for sharing!

Allison Knight said...

I have a couple but I think my favorite is "throwing the baby out with the bath water." In early times, people didn't bath as frequently as we do now. Everyone used the same water in a big (usually wooden, later metal) tub.The father always bathed first, then other male family members, then the women and finally the children. By the time they bathed the baby the water was so dirty, the kid could get lost so you didn't want to throw the water away until you had the baby secured.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Very interesting collection.

Liz Fountain said...

Knowing the origin of these usages helps us choose them wisely. I just heard "the long and the short of it" on a radio program - anyone know where that comes from?