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, February 19, 2015

Haphazard Idioms


Haphazard Idioms

The following idioms don’t follow a theme or tell a story. They simply have individual elements I find fascinating. I hope you’ll agree.

The term blubbermouth, a crybaby or weepy person, has been around since 1400. Originally, blubber (spelled blober) referred to the bubbling, foaming sound & product of the tide. By the 1500s the term picked up the meaning whale oil, and a century later the meaning whale fat. Some weeping-related synonyms that have since fizzled out include blubberguts, blubberhead, & blubbercheeks.

Our figurative term can’t hold a candle to has wonderfully literal beginnings. Back when candles were first created, if a task needed to be completed after sunset, the most able person performed the task while a less able person held the candle. The least able person didn’t even have the aptitude to hold the candle while the work was being done.

A goody-two-shoes is an obnoxiously good individual. The term was born in the 1700s in John Newbery’s children’s collection, Mother Goose’s Melody: or Sonnets for the Cradle. One of the stories featured a painfully poor girl who was fortunate enough to be given a pair of shoes. She was so pleased, she started most interactions by pointing at them & exclaiming, “Two shoes!” It’s not entirely clear how an eternally grateful individual morphed into an obnoxiously good individual, but we’ll let that mystery be.

Contrary to popular assumptions, the idiom out of sight, meaning excellent, has been in existence since 1896.

The term whipper-snapper, or small, cheeky person, appeared first in the 1670s. A century before that, the term snipper-snapper held a similar meaning, which is cited by some sources as whipper-snapper’s origin, though other sources claim whip-snapper, person in charge, is the origin of whipper-snapper.  

The term narrow-minded, meaning small-minded & bigoted, was born in 1625. Interestingly, its sister-word narrow-hearted, meaning mean, ungenerous & ignoble, has not survived.

So, did anything in that somewhat arbitrary list pique your interest? If so, please leave a comment.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Hugh Rawson’s book Wicked Words, Merriam Webster,  Etymonline, & the OED.

8 comments:

  1. I've always wanted to know what "can't hold a candle to" came from. I had no idea. What a fascinating thing that we hold on to such expressions 200 years past the point where they make any sense. :-)

    It's weird how Goody Two-Shoes came to mean goody-goody, because when the book was written, "Goody" was short for 'Goodwife" and was the form of "Mrs." use for the non-gentry and didn't actually have much to do with goodness.

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  2. Hi Anne - I'm with you on "can't hold a candle" -- one of those etymologies I consider delicious. And, yes, on the "Goody" note I found it intriguing that the children's tale was about a little girl, yet "Goodwife" is not.

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  3. Blubberguts? Don't even want to try to put an image to that one. I read something not long ago that was written in the 30's and was so surprised to see the phrase "out of sight". I wonder how many of our youthful idioms were really of our invention?

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  4. Since each generation seems to feel it invented little things like revolution, creativity, & romance, why not the words that go along with all that?

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  5. I'm wondering, after reading Anne's comment, if the Goody Two-shoes doesn't refer to the person who gave the little girl the shoes...the "wife" who parted with the footwear... haven't read the story so maybe it wasn't a woman who gave them to her, but it seems logical to this addled mind... but then, I probably can't hold a candle to that tale! LOL

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  6. Ha! Writers of fiction can make things so much more interesting than reality. Thanks for popping buy, Susan.

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  7. Narrow-minded, meaning small-minded & bigtoed? What do you mean, Sir? Those of us with narrow minds do NOT necessarily have big toes! Oh, bigoted. Never mind.

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  8. Thanks for the chuckle, SK. And thank you, Charlie, for another enlightening post. I'll be sharing the origin of "can't hold a candle to." That's a good one. I'll cringe now if and when I ever hear "whipper-snapper" again. I never once thought about it being related to whip snappers. Awful. I think we should revive "narrow-hearted." There are plenty of public figures to whom we could assign that adjective.

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