Whether it’s what we call things, how we use expressions or just in plain everyday conversation, sometimes you just have to wonder where some of those idioms actually came from. How is it that we save money inside a pig? Have you ever actually seen a cat or dog fall out of the sky when it rains? And just why is it that pie has to be humble anyway? This list has a few that come to mind and attempts to discover just why we use these named things in our everyday life.
10. Piggy bank
Back in the 15th century, many household objects such as pots and jars were made of a type of clay called “pygg”. People often saved up their money by storing it in those kitchen pots and jars calling them “pygg jars”. Then, apparently sometime in the 18th century, someone asked for a “pygg bank” expecting a clay container to store money in. fair enough given the practice of the day back then, however it resulted in receiving a pig-shaped bank. Thus, an icon was born. Once the meaning had transferred from the substance to the shape, piggy banks began to be made from other substances, including glass, plaster, and plastic. In an interesting case of parallel evolution, the Indonesian term celengan (a celeng is a wild boar, with the “an” affix used to denote a likeness) was also used in the context of domestic banks. The etymology of the word is obscure, but evident in a Majapahit piggy bank from the 15 century A.D
9. Bobby pin
On August 6th 1882 Robert Pinney invented a clip to hold together loose strands of twine in his shoe factory. His wife teased that the clip was too tight to hold the twine effectively & could only hold something as fine as hair. After a few modifications, 3 weeks later Robert Pinney officially released the ‘Bobby Pin’ and has been helping us style our hair ever since. So, the popular legend of naming origin actually does not relate to the hairstyle known as the “bob cut” that gained popularity in the 1920′s, and used bobby pins kept the bobbed hair in place. A trademark on the term “bobby pin” was held for some decades by Smith Victory Corporation of Buffalo, New York. A trademark infringement claim made by Smith Victory against Proctor & Gamble regarding their naming their home permanent product Bobbi was settled in the 1950s by a payment to Smith Victory by P&G. The term is now in common usage and therefore is no longer a valid trademark. Bobby pins are inexpensive and tinted to match various hair colors which led to the fashion trend being adopted by 90% of North American women by the end of the decade.
8. Adams apple
This lump in the throat, in medical terminology known as the laryngeal prominence, or more commonly known as the Adam’s Apple, is a feature of the human neck. This lump, or protrusion, is formed by the angle of the thyroid cartilage surrounding the larynx. The term “Adam’s Apple” is derived from Adam having eaten the forbidden fruit in the Bible’s account of the lives of Adam and Eve. The laryngeal prominence is usually more prominent in adult men than in women or prepubescent girls or boys. because the thyroid cartilage elongates during puberty, protruding out the front of the neck more noticeably. The result is that the two laminae (thin cartilage) of the thyroid cartilage that form the protrusion meet at an average angle of 90° in males, and 120° in females, so there is less cartilage protruding out in females. Symbol for the power of men? Interestingly a prominent laryngeal prominence is commonly considered a male secondary sex characteristic. But never fear… if it proves to be too much to handle, men can always have a chondrolaryngoplasty performed, also known as the cosmetic surgery to reduce the size of a laryngeal prominence is called (thyroid chondroplasty).
7. Funny bone
We’ve all experienced that yucky feeling when you bang your elbow, and think – there is nothing funny about it! It is the ulnar nerve, which runs near the ulna bone, that gets banged in these instances. The ulnar nerve is the largest unprotected nerve in the human body (unprotected by muscle or bone). Still not funny. The ulnar nerve is trapped between the bone and the overlying skin at the point where it is vulnerable to being bumped, and the bone that it is up against? It is the large bone in your arm – the humerus - as in humorous – as in funny. Ok, I agree, still not laughing, but that is why it has become known as hitting your funny bone. True story.
6. Raining Cats and Dogs
It seems that there is no definitive source of this expression, although there are several leading theories on its origin. The famous myths of ancient sailors have attributed cats with as mystical power over the weather while dogs often represented storms specifically. In an origin based on the times, it was during the times when homes had thatched roves common that domestic animals would sleep on the roof, thus sliding off during rainstorms when the straws got slippery, Another theory believes that powerful tornados at times deposited animals of all sorts from the skies, much like Toto in the Wizard-of-Oz, leading to the expression raining everything, from rats to cats and frogs to dogs. There are several accounts of frogs, fish, and grasshoppers falling from the sky, usually as a result of tornado-like whirlwinds. Cats and dogs, however, have yet to make the list. Since this one is undecided, you may take your pick and rest assured that it may very well be correct, and certainly cannot be disproved.
5. The Big Apple
“The Big Apple”: NY, NY – a city so nice they had to name it twice. So how did it become a piece of fruit? What an interesting appellation for a city. This information comes from Barry Popik, whose research has uncovered the origin of the term, of which little was previously known. The term came to be popular on the American horseracing circuit in the early part of the 20th century, where New York City was one of the stops. Apples are a favourite food of horses, and, Popik says, apples had a reputation as the “king” of fruits. The “big time” in horse racing of the time was New York, where the largest purses were won (and lost), and so the city came to be known as the “big apple”; that which all on the racing circuit strove to reach. Horses also love carrots, so it is feasible this nickname could very well have gone a completely different direction…
4. There’s more than one way to skin a cat
Meaning of course that there are several ways to get something done, and not actually referring to killing cats (please, no angry feedback on this one!), this expression is elusive in its origins. Charles Kingsley used one old British form in Westward Ho! in 1855, saying “there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream”. Mark Twain used your version in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889, yet the first recorded use of the term is in John Ray’s collection of English proverbs as far back as 1678.
3. Nose to the grindstone
Wherever this idiom originated, the first thought is ouch! The phrase is used to express focus, concentration and generally working hard at something. This makes sense when thinking of the concentration involved in actually using a grindstone, a tool from the early days of the first metal fabrication, when the only way to sharpen metal implements – knives, swords, tools, etc – was to hold them against the large wheel at just the right angle to achieve the edge. Back in the day, the practice of knife grinders when sharpening blades was described as bending over the stone, or even flat on their fronts, with their faces near the grindstone in order to precisely hold the blades against the stone. You sure cannot do this while absentmindedly looking around and admiring the scenery, unless you were willing to have your fingertips sharpened as well.
2. Get down to brass tacks
We know this phrase as meaning getting down to the heart of the matter, to stop skirting around the edge. The first uses of the phrase are not actually that old, dating back to Texas in the 1860s, and don’t really seem to have anything to do with actual tacks. One theory that tries to fit the phrase into the actual “little nail” literal translation assumes that the tacks were among the last things used when crafting furniture – the base and fabric are built, then the tacks were nailed in for the finishing touch and used to hold the fabric in place. Ok, maybe, but the theory that I like and is more likely is that the phrase is an old Cockney rhyming expression for facts. Some have it that the cockney rhyme slang of the 19th century was limited to the UK and Australia, but there were certainly enough transplants in America at the time that it could easily have been incorporated and re-birthed as an Americanism, where it is now said to have originated, yet another American invention owing to the folks from over the pond.
1. Humble pie
Most of us like pie; there may even be a few types that we love, whether you tend toward fruits or meats. So, how did the pastry come to mean humility? Dating back to the Middle Ages in England, the expression to eat humble pie was once to eat umble pie. The “umbles” were the intestines or less appetizing parts of an animal and servants and other lower class people ate them. So if a deer was killed the rich ate venison and those of low status ate umble pie. In time it became corrupted to eat humble pie and came to mean a way of debasing yourself or act with humility, as one mingles and shares a table with those who are socially “beneath” them.
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