Do you know “bromide”? A bromide is a phrase or platitude or cliché whose excessive use suggests insincerity or a lack of originality in the speaker. The term “bromide” derives from the antiquated use of bromide salts in medicine as mild tranquilizers and sedatives. Administration of a “bromide” (such as the original Bromo-Seltzer before 1975 in the U.S.) would relieve anxiety and make the patient drowsy. Describing a phrase as a “bromide” is meant humorously to imply that it is a verbal sedative, a boring statement with similar soporific properties. In 1906, the author Gelett Burgess published a book called Are You a Bromide? in which he referred to boring people – or those who permit others to do his thinking for him – as “bromides”. (Bromide)
Why is a “boxing ring” really a square? It goes back to the times when boxing fights used to be bare-knuckle fights, a circle was drawn in the dirt and prize fighters were ringed by the fans. James Figg, the first recognized boxing champion of England adopted his own set of rules. The name ring continued with the Jack Broughton rules in 1743, which specified a small circle in the centre of the fight area where the boxers met at the start of each round. The first square ring was introduced by the Pugilistic Society in 1838. That ring was specified as 24 feet (7.3 m) square and bound by two ropes. (Quora) Within the square the rival fighters “squared off’ to begin the fight. Later, Jack Broughton’s rules said, “That a square of a yard be chalked in the middle of the stage; and every fresh set-to after a fall, or being parted from the rails, each second is to bring his man to the side of the square, and place him opposite the other, and until they are fairly set to the lines, it shall not be lawful for one to strike the other.” These rules continued to say, “There should be drawn in that square a circle five feet in diameter, known as the center, where contestants shall meet for the beginning of each round.” (The Rules of Boxing)
Nine Days’ Wonder is a novelty that loses its appeal after a few days. According to Phrase Finder, in 1600, William Kemp, an Elizabethan clown actor, who is thought to have been the original Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, 1599, danced a morris dance between London and Norwich. He took up the challenge for a bet and covered the distance of a hundred miles or more in nine days (spread over a few weeks). Some doubted that he had achieved this and, to quell dissent, he wrote ‘Kemps nine daies vvonder’, published in 1600:
“Wherein euery dayes iourney is pleasantly set downe, to satisfie his friends the truth, against all lying Ballad-makers; what he did, how hee was welcome, and by whome entertained.”
There is little doubt that the event did take place. The ample evidence to support it includes the 17th century records of the Norwich Town Council, which lists the payment of his prize money. So, we have a well-authenticated historical event called ‘Kemp’s Nine Days’ Wonder’, dating back to 1600. That might be thought to be enough to establish Kemp as the source of the phrase.
Actually, he wasn’t. The phrase dates from well before the 17th century. As well as the date, there’s the meaning of the phrase, which isn’t ‘something wonderful that took nine days to achieve’, but ‘something which becomes boring after nine days’. The earliest citation, in Old English, is in the ‘Harley Lyrics‘, circa 1325. The earliest record in print that most people today would be able to decipher is in ‘Poems written in English during his captivity in England, after the battle of Agincourt‘ by Charles, Duke of Orleans, 1465:
“For this a wondir last but dayes nyne, An oold proverbe is seid.”
The first record in print of the phrase as we now use it is from George Herbert’s poem The Temple, 1633:
The brags of life are but a nine days wonder;
And after death the fumes that spring
From private bodies make as big a thunder,
As those which rise for a huge King.
Others believe the expression comes to us from the Roman Catholic Church. It refers to the “novena.” The patron saint of each church is presented a novena, which lasts for 9 days, during which the image of the saint, relics and other sacred objects are paraded through town or the village for the “wonder” of the worshippers.
What is a Frank Merriwell Finish? From a series of books popular at the turn of the century, Frank Merriwell, the hero of these books, was always getting into very difficult situations but, after overcoming many unbelievable obstacles, always came out on top. so today, a “Frank Merriwell Finish” is one achieved by overcoming great difficulties with a great deal of accompanying excitement. (Dictionary of Word Origins)
From where do we get the term jerkwater town? A water stop or water station on a railroad is a place where trains stop to replenish water. The stopping of the train itself is also referred to as a “water stop”. The term originates from the times of steam engines when large amounts of water were essential. Also known as wood and water stops or coal and water stops, since it was reasonable to replenish engines with fuel as well when adding water to the boiler. During the very early days of steam locomotives, water stops were necessary every 7–10 miles (11-16 km) and consumed much travel time. With the introduction of tenders (a special car containing water and fuel), trains could run 100–150 miles (160–240 km) without a refill.
To accumulate the water, water stops employed water tanks, water towers and tank ponds. The water was initially pumped by windmills, watermills, or by hand pumps often by the train crew themselves. Later, small steam and gasoline engines were used. As the U.S. railroad system expanded, large numbers of tank ponds were built by damming various small creeks that intersected the tracks in order to provide water for water stops. Largemouth bass were often stocked in tank ponds. Many water stops along new railways evolved into new settlements. When a train stopped for water and was positioned by a water tower, the boilerman swung out the spigot arm over the water tender and “jerked” the chain to begin watering. This gave rise to a 19th-century slang term “Jerkwater town” for towns too insignificant to have a regular train station.Some water stops grew into established settlements: for example, the town of Coalinga, California, formerly, Coaling Station A, gets its name from the original coal stop at this location. On the other hand, with the replacement of steam engines by diesel locomotives many of the then obsolete water stops, especially in deserted areas, became ghost towns. (Water Stop)
What is the origin of the phrase “God bless the Duke of Argyle”? According to Bartleby, the phrase refers to an old Scottish expression of gratitude for how the Duke of Argyle erected a row of posts to mark his property, and these posts were used by the cattle to rub against. (Hotten: Slang Dictionary.) A second source says, “The etymology of the phrase “God bless the Duke of Argyle” is unknown. It’s not so much that no one can guess at the origin of the words themselves, as even the meaning is fairly straightforward. It’s not that no one knows who the Duke is, as Argyle is the commonly accepted spelling in New York of the Duke of Argyll, who visited the city during a period of self-imposed exile in the late 19th century. The question isn’t even when the phrase first appeared, as it has been cited in a number of documents used in trade and diplomacy since the beginning of the 20th century, not long after the Duke’s visit. The problem is that these documents, some dated as far back as the 17th century, have all been proved forgeries. Indeed, even the spelling is incorrect, and there was no Duke of Argyll, let alone a Duke of Argyle, in the 17th century. The uncertainty of the etymology stems not so much from when or how the phrase was used, as whether it was ever really used at all, or if it was only claimed to be used by persons writing under pretense. Despite his appeal in New York City, no New Yorker could rightly have been expected to say “God bless” anything, and outside of New York, the Duke’s low popularity could not have led anyone to wish good blessings upon him, much less God, whose very existence the Duke questioned publicly, thereby contributing to his low popularity, brief exile, and ever so subtle name change, God bless him.” (Wiktionary)
Does getting off “Scot-free” have something to do with Scotland? Oxford Dictionaries tells us, “To ‘get off scot-tree’ means ‘to get away with something without being punished’. Since the familiar English word Scot refers to a native or inhabitant of Scotland, it is tempting to assume that this is a reference to that country. Indeed, that association seems to have existed since at least the 1500s, when the alternative spelling ‘scotchfree’ (based on the adjective scotch, meaning ‘Scottish’) was first attested. However, the scot in scot-free is an entirely different word.
“Scot with reference to a Scottish person derives from post-classical Latin Scottus, but the scot of scot-free is related to the noun shot (associated with the verb shoot), influenced by cognate words in Scandinavian languages. The modern Scandinavian equivalents are Swedish and Norwegian skatt, Danish skat, and Icelandic skattur, meaning ‘tax’. Scot is attested from Middle English with reference to various types of taxes, dues, and payments. In modern English, it is used primarily in historical contexts. Ralph Waldo Emerson is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for his use of the word in describing the ‘personal independence’ of the Saxons: ‘No reliance for bread and games on the government, no clanship, no patriarchal style of living by the revenues of a chief, no marrying-on, no system of clientship suits them; but every man must pay his scot’ (1860 ‘Wealth’ in The Conduct of Life).
Scot-free arose in the 16th century as an alteration of the earlier term shot-free. It probably originated in the sense ‘not required to pay a scot (tax or fee)’ or ‘free of charge’, as in this example from 1792: ‘Scot-free the Poets drank and ate; They paid no taxes to the State!’ (John Wolcot, Odes of Condolence). This meaning is no longer common, but it seems to have been used as late as 1921, in hearings before the US Senate Committee on Finance: ‘The common laborer does not know that that act [on taxation] was passed. He is scot free at 40 cents an hour’.
However, the earliest attested evidence for scot-free in the OED is in the sense that is more common today, in a more generalized meaning of ‘without being punished’, dating from as early as 1528. Thus, in his epistolary novel Pamela (1740), Samuel Richardson wrote ‘She should not, for all the Trouble she has cost you, go away scot-free.’
Scot-free is the most common contemporary idiom involving the word scot, but it has historically been used in many other phrases as well. Scot and lot referred to local or municipal taxes; by extension, it came to be used as an adjective to designate a man who paid such taxes and hence was eligible to vote or (more generally) was respectable: ‘May we not regret that potwallopers, and scot and lot men, and freemen then lost their privilege?’ (1865 Liverpool Mercury 12 Oct.). In the context of British politics, scot and lotalso referred to a system of voting which restricted the franchise to men who paid ‘scot and lot.’
Scot came up in religious contexts as well. Rome-scot was an annual tax paid to the papal see at Rome in pre-Reformation England, and soul-scot was money paid on behalf of a deceased person to their former church.
The most intriguing scot compound is probably scot-ale. According to the OED, this referred to ‘a festivity or “ale” held by the lord of a manor or a forester or other bailiff, for which a contribution was exacted and at which attendance was probably compulsory’; in other words, a party that one was compelled to attend, and for which was also compelled to pay a cover charge. As one 16th-century writer described it, ‘a Scottall or Scot-ale is, where any officer of the Forest doth keepe an Alehouse…and by colour of his office doth cause men to come to his house, and there to spend their money, for feare of hauing his displeasure’ (1598 John Manwood, A brefe collection of the lawes of the forest). Such fund-raising hootenannies were variously described as burdensome duties or pleasant occasions of boozy merriment. Either way, it was true in the most literal sense that no one got off scot-free.
Regina, I love the history behind some of these words. It’s so fascinating. I was recently watching a series of The great British Bake Off and it took me forever to figure out that “Prove” meant for the bread to rise. I wonder how that one came about. Jen
“Prove” – late 12c., pruven, proven “to try, test; evaluate; demonstrate,” from Old French prover, pruver “show; convince; put to the test” (11c., Modern French prouver), from Latin probare “to make good; esteem, represent as good; make credible, show, demonstrate; test, inspect; judge by trial” (source also of Spanish probar, Italian probare)
And if the baker’s term prove or proof is related in some way to the proverb,
“The proof of the pudding is in the eating”. There is a question about its meaning on EL&U, but none of the answers refer to the proving of dough: What proof is there in pudding?
I think it might be, because British sweet and savoury puddings is typically made from suet, and some argue that the pastry needs to rest before it can be rolled out, the pudding filled, and then steamed or baked.
American English usually says something to “proofing the dough.”
Oh thanks! I love that explanation. Words are so fascinating.
I loved reading this post, Regina. You see: I am fascinated learning how words and sayings have come to be. I learned something new today. For that, I thank you.
I am pleased you enjoyed the post. I do them periodically simply because I come across a phrase of word in my reading and begin to wonder the source of the word.
You would likely enjoy the books by Charles Earle Funk. I own 2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings and Expressions from White Elephants to a Song & Dance; Heavens to Betsy and Other Curious Sayings; Thereby Hangs a Tale: Hundreds of Stories of Curious Word Origins; and A Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. You can find them as used books on Amazon.