The Wonderful World of the English Language – Americanisms

The Wonderful World of the English Language – Part Three



People have certainly responded well to the previous two posts regarding how words and phrases have come into the English language. These are some of my favorite Americanisms.

To Play Possum
Some three centuries prior, American hunters discovered the opossum’s ability to literally play dead. When confronted, an opossum will lie with its eyes closed and its limbs limp and unresponsive. Only when the animal is tossed in water will it become active again.

The Whole Kit and Caboodle
The phrase comes to us from “the whole kit and bilin’.” It means to omit nothing. “The whole kit” means the whole lot (either inanimate objects or people). “Bilin’” comes to us from “boiling,” meaning a seething mess, especially of persons. Americans transformed the original phrase into “the whole kit and boodle.” The word “boodle” comes from the Dutch word boedel, meaning property and goods. One thing we find in many Americanisms is the use of alliteration. Therefore, “boodle” was given the “k” sound to match with “kit.” We have “the whole kit and caboodle.” (By the way, “boodle” was later used to mean money gotten from ill ways…by graft or bribery.)

On Easy Street
This American phrase comes from the late 18th or early 19th Century. The Dictionary of American English gives credit to George V. Hobart’s 1902’s It’s Up to You. The line describes a young man “who could walk up and down Easy Street.”

Bats in One’s Belfry
This phrase was coined in the early 20th Century. In 1899, William J. Kountz’s Billy Baxter’s Letters describes a scene from an opera: “The band cut loose something fierce. The leader tore out about $9.00 worth of hair, and acted generally as though he had bats in his belfry. I thought sure the place would be pinched.” Kountz claims the book contains “up-to-date slang.” In Elbert Hubbard’s Little Journeys to the Homes of Eminent Painters, Hubbard quotes painter James Whistler dismissing French artist Gustave Doré by saying, “Doré – Gustave Doré – an artist? Why, the name sounds familiar! Oh, yes, an illustrator. Ah, now I understand; but there is a difference between an artist and an illustrator, you know, my boy. Doré – yes, I knew him – he had bats in his belfry.” English Language and Usage says “This reference is interesting because Hubbard later refers to the phrase as a joke and a bon mot. It’s possible that the joke part is in reference to the bat-like wings of devils portrayed in many of Doré’s works.” In late 1899, a third reference refers back to Hubbard. In The Child Study Monthly, it said, “A parent or teacher who would do this is to our mind ‘born a button short’ or, to use a term from the expressive vernacular of the streets, but dignified by that noble and intensely human literary Philistine, Fra Elbertus, such a person has ‘bats in his belfry’ which, being interpreted, meaneth ‘rats in his garret’ or ‘wheels in his head.’”

To Be in the Hole
This has something to do with a game of poker, but it is not what you might original think. In this phrase we are speaking of a slot cut in the table’s middle. Underneath the table is an attached locked box. John P. Quinn describes the practice of the gambling hall taking a percentage of each pot/hand. In Quinn’s 1892’s Fools of Fortune, he says, “a pair of aces and another pair, and you must go to the hole with a check.”

Lock, Stock, and Barrel
The first literary reference to this phrase comes to us from T. C. Haliburton’s “Sam Slick” stories. Haliburton was a politician, judge, and author in the British Colony of Nova Scotia. He was the first international best-selling author from what is now Canada. He rose to international fame with his Clockmaker serial, which first appeared in the Novascotian and was later published in book form throughout the British Empire. The books recounted the humorous adventures of the character Sam Slick and became popular light reading. The three parts of a gun are named in the phrase = the whole thing. As a point of note, we find The Haliburton Society, still active at King’s College, Halifax, the longest-standing collegial literary society in the Commonwealth of Nations or North America. In addition to “lock, stock, and barrel,” Haliburton is also credited with saying he had enjoyed “playing hurley on the ice,” which is the first know reference to hockey in Canada and is the basis of Windsor, Nova Scotia’s claim to being the town that fathered hockey (as Haliburton was born in Windsor).

I’m from Missouri (Show Me)
Williard D. Vandiver was a representative to Congress from Missouri. According to the Washington Post, at an impromptu address before the Five O’Clock Club of Philadelphia on 31 May 1932, Vandiver defended his home state against a speaker who had portrayed Iowa as the superior state. Vandiver said, “I come from a country that raises corn, cotton, cockleburs, and Democrats. I’m from Missouri, and you’ve got to show me.” Vandiver’s constitutes liked the image the Congressman created of shrewdness. Soon Missouri became known as the “Show Me” State.

None of One’s Funeral
We first find this phrase in print in the Oregon Weekly Times in 1854. “A boy said to an outsider who was making a great ado during some impressive mortuary ceremonies, ‘What are you crying about? It’s none of your funeral.’” Needless to say, the youth likely repeated a phrase he had heard many times, rather than coining a new phrase. The phrase is likely to have traveled from the West to the eastern part of the U.S. It was even heard on the floor of Congress. According to the Bite Size of Amazing Facts, the 49ers and others likely carried the phrase to the East. The phrase was used on the floor of Congress to mean, “to pull wires (or strings). A wirepuller, these days, is one who uses political influence or the like to gain or to win an advantage…. But the original wirepuller was the artist in a marionette show who manipulated the strings or wires that moved the limbs of the puppets.” How the phrase has morphed into a meaning so diverse from the original is hard to say.

Porterhouse Steak
“Porterhouse” comes to us from porter beer, a heavy dark beer brewed from browned or charred malt. The beer was brewed in England as early as 1750. By the late 1700s, Ireland brewed porter beer as a reaction to increased imports from London. In the mid 1800s, the word “porterhouse” meant a resting place for weary travelers. These places served steak and ale, including porter beer.
One version of the popular steak comes to us from Manhattan’s Pearl Street in 1814. Martin Morrison served large T-bone steaks in his establishment, which was one of the first porterhouses in the U.S.
In another version of the story, the Porter House was an early New York tavern (some say the tavern was in Cambridge, Massachusetts) known for its steaks. One eventful evening, the tavern ran out of the steaks it usually served the patrons. So Mr. Zachariah B. Porter went into his private stock and chose a large piece of sirloin to broil. The steak was declared to be scrumptious. The cut of meat was added to the menu as a “porterhouse steak.” The Porter House, a 19th Century hotel, in Flowery Branch, Georgian, also claims to have first used the phrase to refer to a steak on its fare. Either way, those who love a good steak find the beef tenderloin (filet mignon) combined with a New York strip cut one of the best steaks to be eaten.

To Skin the Cat
This means to hang by one’s hands from branch or bar, bring the legs up and through the arms, and to pull oneself onto a seated position upon the branch/bar. Some experts believe this phrase comes to us from Ben Franklin or his cohorts. However, the phrase is not found in print until 1845. To make this move, it was reminiscent of removing the pelt from a cat first from the forelegs and then down the body. Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings (by Gregory Y. Titelman) mentions a 1678 proverb (also mentioned in John Ray’s collection of English proverbs and first attested in the U. S. in “John Smith’s Letters.” The phrase reads as “There are more ways to kill a cat besides choking him to death.”




About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in language choices, word play, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Wonderful World of the English Language – Americanisms

  1. carolcork says:

    I love the phrases The Whole Kit and Caboodle and Bats in One’s Belfry.

  2. Monica says:

    I love these! I’d not heard of the None of One’s Funeral.

Comments are closed.