Tag Archives: expressions

The whole truth

As the Super Bowl approached, someone suggested I write about the expression “the whole nine yards.” Why nine, she asked, when the football field is marked in 10-yard increments?

As with many word matters I research, there isn’t clear consensus on any one theory. Various opinion-holders each claim resolutely that the origin of “the whole nine yards” pertains to rounds of ammunition, the volume of a cement mixer, the cubic footage of a grave, the length of a bridal train or nine shipyards used during World War II. The one I’m going with referred to the Long Jump field event. So there we are; it’s not about football at all.

This got me thinking, though, about the whole ball of wax. No clear consensus on that one either. As best I can tell, “the whole ball of wax” has something to do with the way in which inherited property was once identified. Or it derives from “bailiwick.” You choose.

How about the whole enchilada? The whole shooting match? The whole shebang? What is a shebang, anyway?

I recently heard someone say, “That’s a whole different ball of wax.” Nothing like a good mixed metaphor to take us back to the ball game.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Sports and Recreation

Mixed mementos

I tacked a day onto this week’s business travel to visit my mother in Phoenix. We had a nice time, and now off to work I go.

There’s one thing I’d like to tell you about the visit, only because it speaks volumes about how I got to be the way I am.

Before I arrived, my mother had been going through some boxes of family mementos. She had taken a few relics out to share with me. There were some old family photos, obituaries, news clippings (one about my grandfather, who was hit by a truck in 1939). In with the collection was a list of mixed metaphors.

My mother and her brother had collected these over the years. She and her siblings were blessed—or cursed—with a reverence for the English language and genetically endowed—or cursed—with a perverse sense of humor.

My cousins might be surprised to learn that these treasures, which until now were only traded aloud at family parties, dwell on typed pages (I’m bringing you copies). I trust it’s okay to share these here, as I presume the utterers have either passed on or aren’t reading this blog. While my uncle collected many during an illustrious career, my mother gathered others from friends and talk show hosts.

I did share a few from memory in earlier posts on malapropismsmixed metaphors and other mix-ups, but here’s from the official family archive:

“That will take the steam out of their sails.”

“I’ll get that done by tomorrow, come hook or crook.”

“I’ve been beating my head against the bushes all day.”

“Oh, well, it’s all water over the bridge.”

“You could have knocked me over with a 10-foot pole.”

“Now the fat’s in the frying pan.”

“He’s really treading on thin water.”

“It was as hard as pulling hen’s teeth.”

“You can’t beat blood out of a dead horse.”

“How the Sam Hell!”

“I’m afraid there is no outlook in sight.”

“All right gentlemen, let us circumcise our watches.”

“That guy’s got a rough hoe.”

“He’s still green behind the ears.”

“That guy just beats to a different drummer.”

Commentary on something bad: “Well, that’s the luck of the Irish!”

After a harrowing visit to the dentist: “When that drill hit a nerve, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

On excellence: “He was head above shoulders.”

And my personal favorite: “When in Rome, you have to dance to the music.”

Have a good week and keep your metaphors separated.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Family and Friends


It’s humbling for a self-professed word nymph to discover  a flaw in her understanding of a word (though I deliberately chose “nymph” as a symbol of a work in progress).

Once and again, we all say or spell a word we think is correct for its context, only to learn we’re a letter or syllable off. It’s even more humbling, then, to find additional word mistakes in our quest to learn more about the first one.

I’m betting most of you know this one. I didn’t until last weekend.

In the past, when I referred to a process wherein things are constructed or repaired using only the limited resources available, I said “jerry-rigged.” Or maybe I thought it was gerry-rigged. Or geri-rigged or maybe jeri-rigged. I don’t think I’ve ever spelled it, but I know now I’ve mispronounced it.

On Saturday, The Washington Post referred to the painful process of cobbling together a federal budget compromise:

“When a frantic week ended, Washington still had no Plan A: a proposal that might give both Republicans and Democrats the things they want most.

“Instead, there was only a jury-rigged and unpopular Plan B.”

Jury rigged? Hmm. I didn’t know that, but  later learned that jury rigging (no Casey Anthony jokes) is a sailing term.

Wikipedia cautions us to not confuse jury rigging with jury tampering, not that such a temptation perked in my mind. Further, Wiki explains that “The phrase “jury rigged” has been in use since at least 1788.” Who knew? Not I.

It goes on to explain that “the adjectival use of ‘jury’ in the sense of makeshift or temporary dates from at least 1616, when it appeared in John Smith’s A Description of New England” and lays out several theories about the origin of this usage.

Webster’s honors “jerry-rigged” as “organized or constructed in a crude or improvised manner,” having first come into use in 1959, suggesting also it might have sprung from “jerry-built,” a term with which I am unfamiliar.

Urban Dictionary explains that “jerry” has come to refer to something that is bad or defective: “a pejorative use of the male nickname Jerry.” Jerry as a pejorative? I didn’t know this either; did you?

All the while I was poring over these contemporary sources, what was really lingering in the back of my mind was Michael Jackson’s 1980s jeri curl.

Wouldn’t you know, it’s actually a Jheri curl?

On the subject of all things jury, jerry or Jheri, I’m oh for three. Sometimes nymphs have days like this.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Beauty and Fashion, News

Ape for annuities

Let’s see. How long is the list of companies whose commercials contain grammatical errors? I can count Boniva, Honey Bunches of Oats, Miller Genuine Draft and a few more I can’t recall at the moment. Today I am adding Honda for its recent tagline: “To each their own.” Sheesh.

Another one has been bugging me, not for its grammar but for its mixed metaphor. What has me puzzled is—as is often the case—how it escaped the smart and well paid execs who craft and place television ads.

Take a look at one of Axa Equitable Life Insurance Company’s most recent spots and tell me if you notice it.

“What do I know? I’m just the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”

Pick one, guys. It’s either “the 800-pound gorilla” or “the elephant in the room.” These expressions mean two different things, the latter being more apt for Axa’s campaign. Perhaps the elephant failed the audition.

Just before Axa Equitable launched the campaign during the 2007 Super Bowl, the company said in a press release that it sought to encourage the approximately 77 million baby boomers in America to “stop ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the  room” and buy their variable annuities.

 Four years later, the campaign continues. The commercials have won numerous industry awards and still, no one is challenging their metaphorical duplicity. Naturally, retirement planning and life insurance are important subjects that many prefer to ignore; in this vein, the commercials are hitting the intended demographic target. It’s just that Axa has picked the wrong spokesmammal.

Do we need a refresher?

“The elephant in the room” represents a sizeable subject that everyone is aware of but no one wants to talk about. It might be a looming crisis or a relative’s drinking problem. Everyone knows it’s there—it’s too big to ignore—but we pretend not to notice it. 

An “800-pound gorilla” is a bully, a goliath, a behemoth. Just think of the old riddle.

“Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep?”
“Anywhere he wants.”


Filed under All Things Wordish, Marketing/Advertising/PR

A crack in the idiom

My parents schooled me well on matters of language. Often they told me preemptively about common errors, so that I might avoid them later on. I’ve told you about some of these before (e.g., “waiting on” versus “waiting for”).

Coincidentally, as I was remembering another erroneous expression about which my father warned me long ago, I came across a column on the same subject.

Here we’ve covered malapropisms and funny mixed metaphors. We’ve even discussed useless phrases. But there is another category–expressions that are commonly accepted though, when examined more closely, make no sense. That’s what the column I read on Johnson, The Economist’s language blog, was all about.

I love the way Johnson describes it: “a reasonably common starter phrase that can evolve into a variant catchy enough to take root but close enough to the original and wrong in a subtle enough way for most people not to notice.”

There’s no name for such a thing, as best I know, but there are some examples to consider.

The one my father brought to my attention oh, so long ago: “It fell between the cracks.” Think about it. “Between the cracks.” To fall between the cracks, or slip between the cracks, has come to mean that something was lost—by slipping into a tiny space. Say you drop a small object on the floor. If it slips between the cracks, it’s not lost at all. Why?  Because what’s between the cracks? The wood. Even though “between the cracks” is commonly accepted, what we mean to say—and should say—is “through the cracks.”

By the way, the Johnson column begins by observing that, in British English, the words “between” and “among” do not necessarily have two different meanings, as they do in American English. I am going to assume my American readers know the difference. See me after class if you don’t.

The piece also discusses “head over heels,” another common expression that should really be “heels over head.” Visualize it and you’ll see why.

What other faulty idioms—English or American—can you think of, based on Johnson’s description? Is there a chance we can start a movement?

First, we need to come up with a name for it.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Family and Friends

Anger management

As I was ranting yesterday about the careless Cadillac driver who hit my car and then lied about it, I realized I used a phrase that I didn’t fully understand.

I said that something stuck in my craw. I made a mental note to investigate the origin of the phrase and then never got back to it. I was so steaming mad at myself for being so steaming mad.

I don’t want to be an angry blogger. So I packaged up all the anger I’ve expressed on this blog and filed it under a new Category called “Rants and Raves.” This way, maybe my toxic tantrums can stay tucked tightly away where they can’t infect the other posts.

Eventually I looked up “stick in one’s craw” and confirmed that it meant what I thought: to cause one to feel abiding discontent and resentment.

One source said the phrase comes from something you can’t swallow, based on the literal meaning of craw, which refers to the throat of a bird.

Another source claims “sticks in my craw” is incorrect. She said, “The correct phrase is ‘sticks in my crow.’ ‘Craw’ is a modern corruption of the word ‘crow,’ as in the frequent use of ‘craw’ as verb to describe the sound of crows.” She cited the Oxford English Dictionary.

A blog called Phrase Finder also likened the phrase to having difficulty swallowing something, but elaborated. Citing the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson, the site explained that “The craw is the crop or preliminary stomach of a fowl, where food is predigested. Hunters centuries ago noticed that some birds swallowed bits of stone that were too large to pass through the craw and into the digestive tract. These stones, unlike the sand and pebbles needed by birds to help grind food in the pouch, literally stuck in the craw, couldn’t go down any farther. This oddity became part of the language of hunters and the phrase was soon used figuratively.” 

So many blogs, so many perspectives on one issue.

Then of course, the Urban Dictionary contained an entry or two that aren’t suitable for polite company.

I got to thinking of other sayings that express anger. For example, “This really steams my clams.” “That really burns my biscuits.” “This really grinds my gears.”

Do you have any good ones? Once I rant a good litany, we can move on. I can move on.

Tomorrow I’ll clear my craw and be so cheerful you won’t even recognize me.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Reading, Technology and Social Media

Got your nose

Yesterday we talked about shooting ourselves in the foot (or is it feet?).  I hope you won’t mind our carrying this idiomatic conversation into a second day, as there’s another expression that goes hand in hand with the foot.

“Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Haven’t we all been handed this admonition at least once in our lives?  I recall hearing it at as a young girl, too shy to ask what it meant.  I never considered cutting off my nose or spiting my face.  Whatever that meant.   

It’s been a little tricky to pinpoint the origin of Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.  In looking into it, I stumbled on to some interesting sources, each with a different take on the phrase’s birth.  My, it’s easy to get sidetracked.  I had ordered a copy of the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, written by Francis Groce in 1796, when I remembered I was in the middle of writing a blog.

The sources agree on what it means to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face—essentially, to engage in an act of anger or revenge that will hurt you more than it hurts anyone else.  Where it came from is a little fuzzier.

The origin of shooting oneself in the foot, while painful and untidy, is an image we can readily envision, whereas the historical events that involved nose-cutting and face-spiting are almost too gruesome to fathom.

It seems that, in the Middle Ages, there was a group of nuns who cut off their noses to disfigure themselves to become unattractive so they wouldn’t be raped during Viking pillages.

It has also been posited that the idiom was first used in 1593, by a courtier who advised King Henry IV of France not to destroy Paris because of its citizens’ objections to his reign.

Before we move on from body parts, does anyone have a different understanding?

Then there we have it.  We’ve covered the shooting off of feet and the cutting off of noses. I am up to my eyeballs in cultural dictionaries, urban slang and ancient tomes and still can’t seem to wrap my arms around it all.  I stand on the shoulders of all those who have already tackled the question. 

At least my nose is still intact.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Uncategorized

Coward or careless?

In matters of public affairs, we often hear about a person shooting himself in the foot.  Typically, this means the person has exercised either poor judgment or incompetence, thus jeopardizing his cause.

Frankly, I’ve never given the expression much thought.  It’s a descriptive image that accurately depicts an easy but serious error.  The phrase is used, perhaps overused, in wide range of personal, business and political contexts.

My mother recently conveyed to me a peeve.  She wondered why so many people, including articulate public speakers, misuse this expression, and not just use it incorrectly but use it essentially as a direct opposite of its real meaning.   

I didn’t know this, but she explained that shooting themselves in the foot was what some soldiers did during World War I to get out of going into battle.  It was done deliberately and out of fear or cowardice.  One source explains that shooting oneself in the foot is “to deliberately sabotage an activity in order to avoid obligation, though it causes personal suffering.”

Clearly, to shoot oneself in the foot comes from such wartime acts.  But these days, we hear a lot less about soldiers intentionally wounding themselves and more about people at home accidentally shooting their firearms and wounding themselves, often in the foot.

So it’s easy to see how the expression’s meaning morphed from intentional to accidental, from being caused by fear to being caused by stupidity.

As I contemplated whether there might be a scenario that encompassed both meanings, a long-repressed childhood memory came to mind that, until now, has remained a secret.  When I was in the seventh grade, I jumped six feet off a jungle gym, hands first, intentionally spraining my wrist, to get out of a piano lesson.

The daughter of two musicians and a lover of music, I still regret not being able to play the piano.  I guess I really shot myself in the foot.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Family and Friends, Foibles and Faux Pas, Music

Rabbit rabbit!

If you haven’t spoken yet today and you say “rabbit rabbit” right now, you’ll have good luck for the rest of the month.  And you don’t even have to forward this on to anyone.  The catch is, you have to say it before you say anything else on the first day of the month, in order for it to work.  Otherwise, try again August first.

We embraced this superstition in our house about 10 years ago after hearing it from a local television meteorologist.  Channel 9’s Topper Shutt is right most of the time about the weather, so we trusted him on this one. 

I have no idea if it works, but why chance it?

When you are walking with a friend and an object comes between you, do you say “bread and butter?”   Do you have a required response?  My mother answers with “salt and pepper.”  I have a friend who responds with “come to supper.”

“Rabbit rabbit” and “bread and butter” fall right behind “knock on wood” and “break a leg” in a litany of superstitious phrases uttered in the spirit of attracting good luck.

Reach back through your ancestral traditions.  Are there any you feel comfortable sharing?


Filed under All Things Wordish, Family and Friends