Day 331: Keeping Up With The Muddled Past Of Idioms

originally published November 26, 2012

Almost 300 days ago, on a day so distant from the present I can only picture it in sepiatone with crowds rushing about in an undercranked frenzy, their dialog showing up in intertitle cards, I wrote a graduation speech that made use of 150 idioms. When I stumbled onto one of those idioms for today’s article, I felt it deserved a closer inspection. I know what it means, but where did it come from?

Keeping up with the Joneses, for example. Who the hell are the Joneses? The idiom refers to the pressure to maintain one’s status with the status of one’s neighbors. It’s the basis for the sociological problem of conspicuous consumption, concerns regarding materialism, and a particularly funky song by the Temptations. But where did it come from?

Turns out, this is actually a tough answer. It sort of came from here:

Arthur R. “Pop” Momand started up a comic strip by that name in 1913. The Joneses were the never-seen neighbors of the strip’s characters. But the saying may date back to 18th century New York, with a rivalry among the wealthy Jones family and the rest of high society, including the Vanderbilts and the Astors. The Joneses kept building larger and more elaborate villas in the Hudson Valley, which caused the other society folk to compete with their own spreads.

I’ll buy the high-society origin story, but there’s no way the saying would have trickled into the common lexicon without the comic strip. Pop culture spreads lingo. It’s the same reason so few of our sports metaphors are polo-related.

A chip on one’s shoulder refers to someone who has a grievance or a complaint. The obvious history of this idiom goes back to the tradition of two men about to fight, one placing a wood chip on their shoulder then defying the other to knock it off, thus justifying fisticuffs. That reminds me, I should look up where the term ‘fisticuffs’ comes from, because that’s goofy too.

Actually, this idiom goes back to 1756, when shipwrights (the guys who build ships) received a legislative smackdown in England. It had been customary for shipwrights to take home a daily allowance of timber offcuts – the unusable stuff – for use in stoves, or to hand to old people so they could whittle and talk about the good ol’ days. The Royal Navy Board felt this was costing the taxpayers too much money, so they instituted a rule wherein a shipwright had to carry their timber under their arms, not on their shoulders. They could carry less this way, but still take a bunch home. The Master Shipwright at Chatham Dockyard refused to abide by this, and the confrontation that arose led to the tradition of the shoulder-chip fight-starter.

If you end up wiping out something good in the process while you’re trying to wipe out something bad, one might say you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. It’s an extreme and disturbing metaphor, which I suppose adds to its punch. This idiom is linked to a German proverb: das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten. It was published in 1512 by Thomas Murner, along with the quaint, albeit Tarantino-level violent illustration above.

Thomas Carlyle, the 19th-century Scottish satirist/essayist (kind of like what I do, only he did it better and got paid for it), imported it into English with a reference to slavery, stating that we should end it but not harm the slaves in the process. I suppose if you’re trying to rattle your readers’ skulls to take a common-sense approach about slavery, using an infanticide metaphor isn’t going too far.

Every so often whilst flitting about the internet in search of something to sufficiently distract me so I don’t have to watch the same rerun of Friends for the thirty-eighth time, I come across one of those “Did You Know” lists. They mostly contain the same little morsels of trivia, like the ‘fact’ that the phrase “Mind your P’s and Q’s” (meaning to mind one’s manners or behave) comes from English tavern owners minding their pints and quarts that were being consumed. But that might not be true.

There are a number of possible origins to this one. The one pertaining to early printing presses makes sense: lower-case p’s and q’s can get easily mixed up when setting up the text to be printed. Much like the tavern theory, this has to do with minding details – the stretch to minding manners is simply an obvious extension.

Other theories are that the idiom comes from the French, minding one’s pieds (feet) and queues (wigs) while dancing. Or from sailors who were told to mind their peas (pea coats) and queues (ponytails). It could refer to interpreting Medieval Latin texts, in which abbreviations for words could look quite similar – a single dot over a p or a q could be easily mis-read, and would change the meaning completely.

In short, no one knows. Maybe we should drop this idiom altogether and just tell people to mind their shit.

Lastly, when we kick the bucket, we die. Why a bucket? No one has died from kicking a bucket, have they?

Actually, yes. Death by hanging has been preceded by the victim standing on an overturned bucket, and that bucket being kicked away. But it might also refer to the beam upon which slaughtered pigs are suspended, which is also called a ‘bucket’. A pig might still be struggling, and could kick that bucket.

The Catholics will happily confuse this matter with an old tradition of laying a recently deceased body out with a bucket of holy water placed at the feet. Friends and family would show up to pray over the body, sprinkling the holy water onto the corpse.

So again we end up with a mystery. There was a Caribbean expression ‘Kickeraboo’ which was thought to be a twisted version of ‘kick the bucket’ but was found to have derived from a native word in a West African creole language, one which also meant death. By the 20th century, the common term in the Caribbean cultures was ‘kick the bucket’ though, and how that particular linguistic evolution occurred, no one is certain.

So many idioms with so many possible origins. I thought by now we’d have figured these all out. You let me down, internet.

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