Strange origins of phrases we use every day

Language is not what is in the dictionaries. If it were, most of the phrases we use every day would make no sense, like “running for office.” We don’t actually choose our leaders with a foot race, but we all know what you mean.

Though that would be kind of cool.

Because of these figures of speech, language can be very strange, indeed. Have you ever wondered why we say what we say? Why, for example, do we say…

Rule of Thumb

When you want a rough measurement that doesn’t have to be exact, or a default policy to handle many different situations for which you can’t prepare, you use a “rule of thumb”. Why do we say this? Because there was at one time the original Rule of Thumb that started it all.

In Tudor England, women who were smart married someone with very small thumbs, because a new law made it illegal for a man to beat his wife with a stick thicker than his thumb.

Not happening.

A better law may have been to ban beating wives in any way, shape, or form, but I guess in the Middle Ages this was what counted as progress.

Why won't any woman date me?

Information from The Worst Jobs in History

Juggernaut

The Freakin' Juggernaut!

Before a particular enemy of the X-Men adopted this moniker, it was used to mean anything big and invincible, like huge tanks and trucks, or an athlete with an impressive record. You still hear the term used this way sometimes. But where did it come from?

Hindu mythology, it turns out. The Hindu god Vishnu, is also called “Lord of the World”. In Sanskrit, that title is translated as “Jaggannatha”. So how did this religious title from India come to refer to, well, the picture above?

This is how:

Yes. That is a giant chariot, drawn by dozens of horses, carrying a god.

This temple has a small-scale replica of Vishnu's chariot

If you are a Hindu, and you are in the army, you do NOT want to see that coming at you, because that means your cause is lost. The gods have decided for the other guys, and you are about to have your butt handed to you on a gold platter.

Information from Why Do We Say It?: The stories Behind the Words, Expressions, and Cliches We Use

Privates and Officers in the Army

I know it seems silly to say this, but some of the terms in the Army are quite strange to me. Why are the lowest-ranked soldiers called “Privates” and high-ranking soldiers called “Officers”?

Well, both are short for something. “Private” is short for “private citizen”; “Officer” is short for “public officer”. These are legal terms, and there is a reason for them. In theory, someone who is drafted or volunteers for the army is just an ordinary citizen fighting to protect America from its enemies. The military, it is assumed, isn’t his or her career. He is just a “private citizen”, the legal term for an average Joe, in a uniform.

An officer, on the other hand, is more than just a private citizen. An officer is someone who went through West Point and took all kinds of specialized training for military leadership, or a private who has proven himself or herself worthy of promotion. Once you are an officer, you are a U.S. Government employee who has made a career out of the military. You are now a “public officer”, just like a sheriff, mayor, Senator, or Secretary of State. This means you have legal obligations that a private doesn’t have, and are held to a higher standard in such things as libel cases.

Information from Why Do We Say It?: The stories Behind the Words, Expressions, and Cliches We Use

References to “Screwing”

“I’m screwed!”, “Screw you!”, and phrases like this are a very rude, but unfortunately very real, part of our lives. It’s pretty much accepted by everybody that “screwing” is a crude and provocative description of sex.

But the origins of these phrases have nothing to do with sex. At all.

In Victorian England, people who were sent to prison were introduced to this little device:

It was called “the crank”. Prisoners cranked it 10,000 times a day. What did the machine do? It counted how many cranks the prisoner had turned. Seriously, that’s it. The machine had no purpose other than to be a punishment in and of itself.

To make matters worse for convicts, the crank was adjustable. Guards were equipped with special screws that could make the crank harder to turn or easier to turn. Thus, a prisoner who was caught breaking the rules was “screwed”. A guard who wanted to threaten a prisoner would say, “I’ll screw you.” The guards themselves were called “screws”. And so on.

Information from What the Victorians Did For Us.

Before you go: Check out my mom’s review of a restaurant that will open soon in Morro Bay, California. It will feature one of the tastiest burgers I have ever tried!

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3 Responses to Strange origins of phrases we use every day

  1. John Perkins says:

    From my perspective, the explanation for getting your butt handed to you wasn’t really explained. Just that it could happen.

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