Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Traceable Idioms

Traceable Idioms

Idioms abound, yet they usually have shaky or completely untraceable origins. Hard-working word sleuths have uncovered the origins of only a fraction of English idioms. Here are a few.

Point blank – the term appears to come from French, point blanc, a term in which the blanc refers to the white circle in the center of a target & point means exactly that – aim.

Slush fund – The masts of sailing ships were once maintained by rubbing slush into the wood. This slush was the waste grease from the galley. After a ship’s masts were happily greased, the cook could sell the remaining grease, which put money in his pocket – money he could spend however he liked, his slush fund.

Dull as dishwater – Oddly, this is a fishing term. Fishing in a pond, river, lake or bay wasn’t dull at all, but fishing in a ditch rarely produced a fish, & was therefore, tedious. The idiom appears to originally have been dull as ditchwater, or dull as fishing in ditch water.  In time, it changed to the idiom we know today.

Nick of time – During the Middle Ages, attendance at church and university was taken by carving tally marks, or nicks, in a piece of wood. Those who arrived on time received a nick. It’s intriguing that we don’t refer to those arriving late as nickless, nick-free, or unnicked.

Pillar to post – Criminals were once either pilloried or tied to a post and whipped. The even less fortunate were dragged from one of these two forms of torture to the other, sometimes multiple times. In time, from pillory to post morphed into from pillar to post.

Peeping Tom – apparently when the famous (or infamous) Lady Godiva rode through the streets without a stitch on, the one chap who ogled her & got caught doing so was named Tom. Some sources suggest that neither Tom’s peeping nor his punishment (going blind) was part of the original tale, but the addition appears to be the origin of this idiom.

Good readers, which of these idiom origins do you find most remarkable? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Phrase Finder, Etymonline, the OED, & Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins.


  1. I knew about the ditchwater and "Peeping Tom". (I read lots of library books about old legends when I was a kid. Peeping Tom always featured in the Lady Godiva stories.) But I did NOT know about "Point Blank", "slush fund" or "the nick of time." Thanks, Wordmonger!

  2. Ahoy Miss Allen - good to have you here. Something in me knew you'd know about Peeping Tom. Ha!

  3. Replies
    1. Ha! Ms. Rabourn, you crack me up. "More" comes every Thursday evening, & there are three years worth of archives for those with time on their hands.

  4. I thought slush fund was the most interesting and one most people would never guess. But then, fishing in ditch water is pretty out there too. Thanks for the entertainment!

  5. Hey Christine - Who knows, there may be a hidden cure for funky knees in this post. Rubbing slush into them? dousing them in ditchwater? Allowing some chap named Tom to ogle them?