From Where Does That Phrase Come? A Bit of Slang

images-1 Slang, consists of a lexicon of non-standard words and phrases in a given language. Use of these words and phrases is typically associated with the subversion of a standard variety (such as Standard English) and is likely to be interpreted by listeners as implying particular attitudes on the part of the speaker. In some contexts a speaker’s selection of slang words or phrases may convey prestige, indicating group membership or distinguishing group members from those who are not a part of the group.

A bad egg
This bit of “slang” did not develop until the mid 1800s. Today, the phrase refers to someone or something that disappoints or does not meet expectations. Shakespeare had used the word “egg” to refer to a young person, as in Macbeth when the murderers seeking Macduff meet up with his young son and kill the boy. “What you egg! Young fry of treachery!” The earliest use of the word to connote “disappointment” comes from the Milwaukee Daily American (September 1856). “Mayor Woods is moving heaven and earth to procure his renomination. One of his dodges is, to get up letters in the newspaper, pretending to emanate from ‘distinguished citizens,’ including merchants, mechanics and working men, soliciting him in the most pathetic terms to present himself to the dear people. There are also on the list a number of notorious blacklegs whom Woods keeps in pay. He is a bad egg.”

To fly the coop
This is another bit of slang, which likely dates back to the nineteenth century. It has come to mean to run off, to escape, or to depart abruptly. “Coop” is criminal cant for prison or jail. The phrase has come to mean an unceremonious departure. “Coop” finds its roots in Middle English coupe for “basket” or Norwegian kaup for “wooden can.”

Iron Curtain
Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, coined this phrase following WWII. On 5 March 1946, he expressed his misgivings regarding European politics at Fulton, Missouri, where he was receiving an honorary degree from Westminster College. He said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The Iron Curtain symbolizes the ideological conflict and physical boundary diving Europe into two separate areas from the end of World War II in 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1991.

Etymology: Possibly a corruption of cage, from Old French; as a noun cadge it finds meaning in falconry to refer to a circular frame on which cadgers carry hawks for sale. As a verb, it can be used (US, UK, slang) to mean to obtain something by wit or guile; to convince someone to do something they might not normally do or in (UK, Scotland, dialect) meaning too carry, as a burden; To hawk or peddle, as fish, poultry, etc., or To intrude or live on another meanly; to beg.

To Lie in One’s Teeth
This phrase means to lie grossly or maliciously: If she told you exactly the opposite of what she told me, she must be lying in her teeth. Also, lie through one’s teeth. The origin comes to us before 900; (noun) Middle English; Old English lyge; cognate with German Lüge, Old Norse lygi; akin to Gothic liugn; (v.) Middle English lien, Old English lēogan (intransitive); cognate with German lügen, Old Norse ljūga, Gothic liugan. The phrase is thought to have made its way into the language in the early 1300s, as in The Romances of Sir Guy of Warwick: and Remburn His Son. “Thou liest amidward and therefore have thou maugreth (shown ill will).”

On tenterhooks
This phrase means to be in a state of anxious suspense. A “tenter” is a frame or endless track with hooks or clips along two sides that is used for drying and stretching cloth. It comes to us from Middle English teyntur, probably from Medieval Latin tentura, from tenta tent frame or tent. Its first known use was in the 14th century. Because of the tenter’s similarity to the rack in its construction, the term “tenterhooks” became to be known for its suspended tension.

Rope of sand
This phrase means something of no cohesion or stability: a feeble union or tie. It is used ironically to describe a treaty or a contract, meaning a paper with no binding power over the two parties involved. Sir Francis Bacon used the phrase as such, “to knit a rope of sand.” Samuel Butler (in 1712) wrote “I leave to my said children a great chest full of broken promises and cracked oaths; likewise a vast cargo of ropes made of sand.” The Urban Dictionary calls it a running joke used in academic writing. The phrase, purposefully meaningless and ambivalent, is used after a colon to “spice up” a title.
The Collapse of the Ottoman Empire: A Rope of Sand
Organ Transplant Rejection: A Rope of Sand
My Summer Vacation: A Rope of Sand

Unknown Too big for one’s breeches
This one likely dates back to the mid 1100s. It means to assert oneself beyond his authority or ability. It comes from our pride in trying to impress another. The first print version of the phrase comes to us from H. G. Wells in 1905, but it was in wide use in the spoken language long before that time. Other versions of the phrase include “too big for one’s boots,” “he of the swelled buttocks,” and “swellhead.”

To go berserk
This phrase means to behave in a frenzied and violent manner. This term has something in common with ‘run amok’. The two phrases, as well as sounding rather similar, mean virtually the same thing. Their sources though could hardly be further apart. ‘Run amok’ derives from the Far East, whereas ‘go berserk’ is of Viking (Norse) origin. In that tradition a ‘Berserker’ was a warrior of great strength and courage, who fought with wild ferocity. The word is believed to be derived from ‘bear sark’, that is, bear coat. That berserker fighting tradition, in which the warriors took on the spirit (or even in their belief, the shape) of bears whilst foaming at the mouth and gnawing the edges of their shields, is the source of the Vikings’ fierce reputation. It dates back to the first millennium but had died out by the 1100s and thereafter the word berserker didn’t feature widely in the English language until the 19th century. There is a rival, but less widely accepted, version of the derivation. In this the Vikings were supposed to show their bravery by going into battle with their sark jackets open, that is, ‘bare-sark’.
Who better to bring the word to our notice than that inveterate reviver of historical stories, Sir Walter Scott? In his 1822 book ‘Pirate’, he wrote:
“The berserkars were so called from fighting without armour.”
It was quite some time before the word began to be used in the figurative sense, that is, for it to be applied to people who ‘went berserk’ without an allusion to Viking warriors. Rudyard Kipling’s book Diversity of Creatures, 1908 has:
“You went Berserk. I’ve read all about it in Hypatia … you’ll probably be liable to fits of it all your life.”
The first reference to the actual use of the term ‘go berserk’ is in the obscure US newspaper the La Crosse Tribune and Leader-Press, 1919:
“With hungry Russians crowding in from the east, a hungry Germany may shortly toss its new conventions after the old and go berserk in the teeth of the cannon.” (The Phrase Finderimages-1)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to From Where Does That Phrase Come? A Bit of Slang

  1. carolcork says:

    I hadn’t heard the phrase Rope of Sand before.

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