Thursday, March 12, 2009

Where Do They Come From?

by Joyce

One of the many cool things about being a writer is the luxury of playing around with words and phrases. Every once in awhile I'll look at a word or phrase and wonder where in the world it came from.

Did you ever wonder about the origin of the saying, Tied to her apron strings? You're in luck. I looked it up. According to the website,, the term has been in use since the mid-17th century: "An apron string hold or apron string tenure referred to property of one’s wife, which was controlled by the husband during her life but which afterwards would revert to her original family."

The term bigwig originated back in the 1700s, when men wore powdered wigs. Those who had more money could afford bigger and more expensive wigs.

Did you know that grandfather clause has its origins in the late 19th century deep south? Residents had to pass a literacy test or pay a poll tax in order to vote, but if their grandfather had been eligible to vote, they were automatically eligible.

The phrase head over heels was originally heels over head, which makes a lot more sense since the head is usually over the heels to begin with. The real McCoy should actually be the real MacKay (after a brand of Scotch whiskey)?

One that really surprised me was rule of thumb. I'd heard that it came from an old law that stated a man could beat his wife with a stick as long as it was narrower than his thumb. Apparently this is a myth. That meaning for rule of thumb has only been around since the 1970s. It's really just a term of measurement, since many thumbs are about an inch wide.

So, how about you? Have any unique words or phrases to share?


Tory said...

Really cool site, Joyce!

I looked up "at 6s and 7s" and found it came from rolling the dice.

I couldn't find "gallywumpas" but that may be because I didn't spell it correctly.

Notice a certain trend in the words I'm looking up? :-)

Annette said...

When I started hanging around with my hubby, I learned the meaning behind terms like Lock, Stock, and Barrel (which has nothing to do with keys, cattle, or containers for whiskey) and A Flash in the Pan.

Joyce said...

This has nothing to do with this post, but I just read that our friend Kelli Stanley won the award for best historical mystery at Left Coast Crime. Congratulations, Kelli!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Cool stuff, Joyce. Nothing is coming to mind at the moment, but quite often I wonder about certain words. Now I have a resource.

Annette said...

Yay, Kelli!

Jennie Bentley said...

Cool stuff, Joyce. I love words, too. Except I always thought 'the real McCoy' referred to Bill McCoy, who was a rum runner in the early part of the century. Instead of watering down his liquor to make it go further so he could make more money, he sold the real thing, and so the phrase 'the real McCoy' goes back to old Bill. Link:

I'm off to congratulate Kelli now. Wow, she's getting a lot of good news lately!

Joyce said...

I'll have to check that link, Jennie. I got my info from the Word Origins site.

Dana King said...

As a Pittsburgh native who has lived many places since, I can sometimes stop a conversation cold by referring to a "pig in a poke." "Poke" seems to be a uniquely Pennsylvanian term for paper bag, so anyone buying a pig in a poke is paying for something sight unseen.

Joyce said...

I like that one, Dana!

lisa curry said...

I'm a fan of phrases that have obvious agricultural/ rural/ farmy origins like, "Make hay while the sun shines," "Strike while the iron is hot," and, "Faster than a duck on a June bug." (No doubt due to my own agricultural/ rural/ farmy origins.)

I tried looking up the word "nebby" on that Word Origins site and got zilch. Do people use that word (meaning nosy) anywhere other than in Western Pennsylvania? I recall using it one time to a friend from Missouri, and she had no idea what it meant. One of my college roommates used to refer to people who failed to mind their own business as "Nelly Nebshits." I like nebby. It's a good word. :-)

Joyce said...

Nebby and nebshit are only used around here. I used nebshit in my first manuscript and an agent actually asked me what it meant. I think the origin is Pennsylvania Dutch. Now it's Pittsburghese.

Maybe I need to do a post on Pittsburghese!

Joyce said...

Or maybe a post IN Pittsburghese and see if anyone can translate!