Six intriguing idioms
Every idiomatic phrase has a story. Here are a few I find entertaining.
In the 1800s, English speakers in America borrowed a Cree word for marmota monax (also known as the groundhog). They squeezed it into sounds that made some sort of sense in English, & ended up with woodchuck. These rodents were powerfully effective diggers, and regularly dug up the dirt roads, yielding chuckholes. Today, though rodents aren’t responsible, we still call the cavities in asphalt & cement roads, chuckholes.
Some early puritans held the belief that a human was made of two halves: the body, & the spirit. Given puritanical thinking regarding the body, it should be no surprise that the spirit was considered the better half. When Sir Phillip Sydney wrote The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, he applied this concept to marriage. Ever since, any married individual has a better half.
The word bootlicker was born in the US of A’s youth. When hunters returned from a successful hunt (which often involved dressing and skinning), they weren’t very good at cleaning up their footwear, and stray dogs would follow them to lick their boots. The story goes that the trained hunting dogs would never stoop so low (hmmm), so bootlicker refers to the fawning behavior of curs.
The most plausible of the many possible origins for getting one’s ducks in a row has to do with bowling. When bowling first made its way to America, a narrower-then-usual pin was used, which resembled a duck looking upward, & was called a duckpin. In those early years, machinery didn’t set up the pins for the next bowler, so someone had to run down the lane to put the ducks in rows. Voila.
In China, a task that requires synchronized multiple hands can be accompanied by the phrase (said in unison), gung ho, which translates to work together. And it’s no surprise that when a bunch of people work together, amazing things can be accomplished. English-speaking observers impressed by such things as the Great Wall, figured it took a bunch of enthusiasm to manage such a project. Ever since, gung ho! has meant very enthusiastic (in English, anyway).
There are a couple possible origins for put up your dukes, & duke it out. Some etymologists link this to the British cockney tradition of labeling one thing by the name of something else that rhymes. Apparently, before 1700, fingers were referred to as forks. Cockney speakers combined this information with the royal title the Duke of York. Since fingers were already called forks, obviously, hands must be dukes! Makes perfect sense, right? Story #2 involves a specific Duke of York — Frederick Augustus, who was “widely admired” as a bare-knuckle fighter. So, fo course, why not call fists dukes?
I’d love to know which of these origin stories you find most intriguing OR most satisfying.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Webb Garrison’s Why You Say It, Etymonline.com, , Phrases.org, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.