Adages, Aphorisms, and Other Idioms: What Do They Mean?

Everyday we hear and use sayings that quite often we don't know what they mean or where they originated. Many of us would be surprised to learn how they came into being. This article explores the possible source of several of these colloquialisms.

(Reader instructions: Read with tongue firmly in cheek.)  In the study of linguistics, one of the more interesting, insightful, and often humorous aspects of regional speech patterns are those colorful little colloquialisms known as adages, aphorisms, and idioms.  If you've traveled the country, you've no doubt heard someone use the phrase, "Pay through the nose," or "You're just talkin' out of your ass," or, so-and-so "shit a brick!"  Well, I decided to do a little research into this phenomenon to see if there are any factual or anecdotal basis for these sayings.  And after traveling the country for several years, asking people to relate what they believe to be the origins of locally-used idioms, I discovered that in most cases there are indeed specific events related to particular sayings. 

For example, "Pay through the nose," as the legend goes, is attributed to a now extinct Inuit tribe of Alaska who after discovering the quaint pleasantry of rubbing noses, attempted to initiate other nose customs.  (Fortunately, perhaps, this one never really caught on.)   Seems "You're just talkin' out of your ass" dates back to 550 BC Mesopotamia and a local desert grifter named Ishmael who unwittingly became the world's first ventriloquist when a skeptical onlooker exposed his Bathsheba the Talking Mule routine.   And "shit a brick," as it turns out, is attributed to a very talented rooster once living in China who'd lived most of its life in the "lap of luxury" due to possessing this remarkable ability--only to be upstaged late in life by the discovery of a goose who could lay golden eggs.  (No need to tell you how that ended!)  Indeed, these and countless other sayings are so embedded in our language patterns that most of us use them without even thinking, and with no idea what they actually mean. 

When I was growing up in Pennsylvania during the 1960s, a common colloquialism was "nit-picker."  You'd often hear someone say, "Oh, don't be such a nit-picker!"  Well as it turns out, "nit-picker" is actually one of several historically documented and apparently semi-lucrative occupations during the Dark Ages when water was scarce and plumbing as yet unknown.  But as history confirms, dust blowers and crud scrapers were somewhat better paying jobs of the time.  What about the phrase, "Give me a hand."  Where do suppose it came from?  Well, if we can trust urban legend, this was the simple instruction that ultimately led to the parting of ways (and limbs) of Dr. Frankenstein and his wise-cracking and irrepressible anything-for-laugh lab assistant, Igor.   (Gotta visualize that one!) 

And certainly, we've all heard the saying, "Take a long walk off a short pier."   Well, as I discovered while visiting St. Augustine, this little idiom is part of the legacy of one "Savage Sam," the only known sea-sick pirate of the Seven Seas, who because of his aversion to water, devised this version of Walk the Plank for all the scurvy ship captains he scourged dock-side.

"Hog heaven."  "Hind Sight."  "Born with a silver spoon in his/her mouth."  "A lick and a promise."  They all have what would seem very logical and credible linguistic pedigrees.  One of my grandmother's favorites was, "I'll hit you so hard your nose will bleed buttermilk!"  Most of my life I thought she'd penned this little ditty herself only to find out that it's actually Biblical in origin; in the Philistine version of the David story, before David thought to use his sling, this was the taunt he'd hoped would discourage Goliath from swiftly cutting off his head.  How about "Nose to the grindstone?"  I still hear that one now and again.  In the mid-West, this saying is attributed to a miller named Johnson whose flour was once the "hands-down" favorite of bakers for hundreds of mile around until someone accidentally witnessed how Johnson got that special down-home taste.

As our language evolves and morphs, new phrases find their way into our idiomatic lexicon.  While some adages and aphorisms end-up as part of a regional linguistic package, others seem to float free-form around the country, turning up in the most unexpected places--a nun once instructed me to "keep my pants on."  (I didn't dare inform her of its origin!)   But by far the most fascinating aspect of the current linguistic process are those sayings finding their way into our vocabulary via foreign languages.  But . . . you'll just have to read my next Factoidz installment to find out more about those!

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Jerry Walch
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Posted on Jun 2, 2009