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words and phrases

Below you will find the origination of many commonly uses words and phrases.

Big Wig - Men shaved their heads (because of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford good wigs made from wool. The wigs couldn't be washed, so to clean them, they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy. Today we often use the term "here comes the Big Wig", because someone appears to be or is powerful and wealthy.

Ladies wore corsets which would lace up in the front. A tightly tied lace was worn by a proper and dignified lady as in "straight laced".

It Will Cost You an Arm and a Leg - In the 1700's ones image was either sculpted or painted. Some paintings of George Washington showed him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back, while others showed both legs and both arms. Prices were not based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be painted. Arms and legs are "limbs" therefore painting them would cost the buyer more.

Women would spread bees' wax over their face and skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman's face she was told "mind your own beeswax". Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the term "crack a smile". Also, when they sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt and therefore the expression "losing face".

Chairman or Chairman of the Board - In the late 1700's many homes consisted of a large room with only one chair. Commonly, a long, wide, board was folded down from the wall and used for dining. The "head of the household" always sat in the chair while everyone else ate sitting on the floor. Once in a while an invited guest (who was almost always a man) would be invited to sit in this chair during a meal. To sit in the chair meant you were important and in charge. Sitting in the chair, one was called the "chair man".

A tax was levied when purchasing playing cards, but only applicable to the "ace of spades". To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, these people were though to be stupid or dumb because they "weren't playing with a full deck".

Mad as a Hatter - Utterly insane. Mercury was used in the manufacture of felt hats, so hatters, or hat makers, would come into contact with this poisonous metal a lot. Unfortunately, the effect of such exposure may lead to mercury poisoning, one of the symptoms of which is insanity.

It's Raining Cats and Dogs - There are several theories about this rainfall saying. It is possible that the word cat is derived from the French word "catadupe" meaning "waterfall". Or it could be raining "cata doxas", which is Latin for "contrary to experience". or an unusual fall of rain.
In Northern mythology, the cat is supposed to have great influence on the weather. The dog is a symbol of the wind, like the wolf. Both animals were attendants of Odin, the storm-god. In old German pictures the wind is figured as the head of a dog, with wind blasting forth. The cat therefore symbolizes the down-pouring of rain, and the dog the strong gusts of wind that accompany a rainstorm, and a rain of "cats and dogs" is a heavy rain with wind.

In A New York Minute - The Dictionary of American Regional English quotes this explanation of the term, from 1984: "Immediately. Equates to a nanosecond, or that infinitesimal blink of time in New York after the traffic light turns green and before the ol' boy behind you honks his horn.

The full expression is "happy as a clam at high tide" or "happy as a clam at high water". clam digging has to be done at low tide, when you stand a chance of finding them and extracting them. At high water, clams are comfortably covered in water and so able to feed, comparitively at ease and free of the risk that some hunter will rip them untimely from their sandy berths.

When American GI's returned from Asia at the close of World War II, they brought home a new word to add to the lexicon - "boondocks". It is derived from bundok the Philippine word for mountain and describes a place that is remote and inaccessible.

In certain games of poker, some cards dealt are not visible to the other players, and the slang expression for these cards is called "the hole". Having an "ace" (a high card) "in the hole" can proved one with a decisive advantage when the cards are finally revealed.

Bowling was originally called ten-pins and the equipment used in Europe was employed in the earliest American bowling saloons. The game was modified by introduction of a short, slender pin that was compared with a duck and called duckpins. So many people reset so many pins in rows that one who completes a task is commended as having put his "ducks in a row".

The burning of lime to create a strong light was originally used by lighthoused before the era of electric lights. Theaters also burned lime to create a strong spotlight effect and hence the expression "in the limelight".

Slush Fund - This is a nautical expression. "Slush" refers to the refuse fat or grease obtained from meat boiled on board ship. Sailors boiled down and stored the fat remains of their salt beef rations with the intent of selling them for personal gain. Citations of the "slush fund" date from 1839.

At local taverns people drank from pint and quart-sized containers. A bar maid's job was to keep an eye on the customers and keep the drinks coming. She had to pay close attention and remember who was drinking in "pints" and who was drinking in "quarts". Hence the term "minding your P's and Q's".

Gossip - Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what was considered important to the people. The politicians sent their assistants to local taverns and were told to "go sip some ale" and listen to people's conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were dispatched at different times. "You go sip here" and "You go sip there". The two words "go sip" were eventually combined into "gossip" when referring to local opinion.


Well-known member
Feb 10, 2005
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Intriguing where sayings originate. The "big wig" one was especially so. I never would have guessed why they shaved their heads. Still wonder how common that actually was considering they didn't shave children's heads surely. Or women's? :???: Now I'm wondering if it is true. :???:


Well-known member
Feb 16, 2005
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South East Texas
Reckon it coulda been cuz the women and children bathed more often than the men back then? I"m sure mama's wanted their kids clean then too.....even if it wasn't but once a week on saturday night lol
Bet they got some kinda spit shine in between baths.

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