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Say what?

Say what?
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Our everyday language is full of idioms, some of which might seem downright bizarre. And as funny as expressions like “kit and caboodle” and “till the cows come home” are the stories behind where they come from might be even funnier! They’re certainly fun brain candy. And though English is indisputably wacky and confusing, plenty of other languages also have common expressions that sound downright ridiculous.

Getting the sack

Getting the sack
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In ancient Rome, those convicted of parricide or other heinous murders were tied in a sack and dumped into the Tiber River, instantly solving any potential recidivism problem. The practice spread throughout many other European countries, and, as late as the nineteenth century, murderers in Turkey were tossed into the Bosporus in a sack. To get the sack, then, probably was used figuratively as a threat of any sort of punishment, such as losing one’s job.

Another theory to explain how “get the sack” was recorded – as early as 1611 in France – is that it referred to craftsmen of the Middle Ages. Artisans carried their tools in sacks; while they worked, they handed the sacks to their employers. When a craftsman got the sack, it meant that his services no longer were required. He was left, literally, holding the bag.

Learn which 15 common words used to mean something completely different. 

Stealing someone's thunder

Stealing someone's thunder
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John Dennis, an English poet and playwright, wrote a tragedy called Appius and Virginia, which was produced in 1709 to less than rousing commercial success. Only one element of the production stirred the audience: thunder sound effects more realistic than any heard before on the stage, effects that Dennis himself created. The play failed, but the theatre’s next production didn’t. Dennis went to check out a successful production of Macbeth and was more than a little upset to discover that his sound effects were used in the storm scenes of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Different sources vary slightly in describing what Dennis exclaimed upon hearing his thunder help promote the new production, but they are all variations of Stuart Berg Flexner’s quote: “See how the rascals use me! They will not let my play run, and yet they steal my thunder!”

Kit and caboodle

Kit and caboodle
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Both words, separately, have distinct meanings, but the two have been lumped together for so long that each has taken on much of the other’s meaning. Both words have Dutch origins: “Kit” originally meant tankard, or drinking cup, while “Boedel” meant property or household stuff. By the eighteenth century, “kit” had become a synonym for a tool kit. “Boodle” became slang for money, especially tainted money. By the nineteenth century, “caboodle” had taken on connotations of crowds, or large numbers.

By the mid-nineteenth century, “kit” had found many companion words in expressions that meant essentially the same thing: “kit and billing,” “whole kit and tuck,” “whole kit and boodle,” and “whole kit and caboodle” were all used to mean “a whole lot” or “everything and everyone.” Although the expression isn’t as popular as it used to be, it’s comforting to know that old-fashioned slang made no more sense than the modern variety.

Are you guilty of using these redundant phrases from time to time?

Last-ditch effort

Last-ditch effort
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The first recorded use of “last-ditch” was in Bishop Gilbert Burnet’s memoirs, History of My Own Time, published in the early eighteenth century: “There was a sure way never to see it [Holland] lost, and that was to die in the last ditch.” The earliest use of “last-ditch” was a literal one, signifying the last stand, the last defence against an aggressive enemy.

Thomas Jefferson was perhaps one of the first to use the phrase figuratively (1821): “A government … driven to the last-ditch by the universal call for liberty.”

Beat around the bush

Beat around the bush
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Medieval men may not have had the thrill of flinging Frisbees, but they had a worthy counterpart: the challenging sport of batfowling. consisted of going into a forest or shrub-laden area and beating birds senseless with a bat. Before whacking it with the bat, they were “kind” enough to wake the bird up first, by stunning it with harsh light, rendering the bird blind and temporarily helpless. “Sensitive” batfowlers caught the birds in nets.

Sometimes, though, the birds proved to be uncooperative, selfishly sleeping in bushes where they were invisible instead of marching forward and offering themselves as ritual sacrifices. So batfowlers engaged servants or boys, known as beaters, to literally beat adjacent bushes to rouse flocks of sleeping birds. As the stunned birds awakened and fled in panic, they would be attracted to the torch or lantern and be socked into unconsciousness by the batfowler. Although the person today who beats around the bush might not have violence on his mind, he similarly conceals or avoids the real thing that concerns him.

We wish these old-time compliments would make a comeback!

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Flotsam and jetsam

Flotsam and jetsam
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Although they sound suspiciously like two of Santa’s missing reindeer, flotsam and jetsam are actually two different types of debris associated with ships. We rarely hear either term mentioned without the other close behind (and saying, “jetsam” before “flotsam” is like saying, “Cher” before “Sonny”). When we talk about “flotsam and jetsam” today, we are usually referring metaphorically to the unfortunate (for example, “While visiting the homeless shelter, the governor glimpsed what it is like to be the flotsam and jetsam of our society”).

At one time, however, “flotsam” and “jetsam” not only had different meanings but carried important legal distinctions. In English common law, “flotsam” (derived from the Latin flottare, “to float”) referred specifically to the cargo or parts of a wrecked ship that floats on the sea. “Jetsam” (also derived from Latin  –  jactare, “to throw”) referred to goods purposely thrown overboard in order either to lighten the ship or to keep the goods from perishing if the ship did go under.

Meanwhile, these 10 common sayings sound way funnier in other languages. 

High jinks

High jinks
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Originally a Scottish word, the primary meaning of “jink” has, for the past two hundred years, been “to move swiftly, especially with sudden turns.” High jinks existed just as long. Although we now use high jinks to refer to any prank or frolic, during the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth century, high jinks was a popular parlour game. A throw of dice would determine one “victim.” He would have to embarrass himself by performing some prank for the amusement of the other revellers; if the victim refused or couldn’t satisfactorily perform the task, he had to pay a forfeit, usually downing a hefty container of liquor.

If this is the origin of HIGH jinks, it is probably just as well that there is no LOW jinks in our lexicon.

Under the weather

Under the weather
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This might seem obvious; doesn’t it just reference being stuck in bad weather? Well, it kind of does, but it has a much more specific origin than that. The original phrase was actually “under the weather bow,” and referred to the side of a ship that would get most buffeted by bad weather. Sailors who were feeling seasick would go below decks to wait out the storm – so they’d literally be underneath the bad weather.

Wild goose chase

Wild goose chase
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Surprisingly, the origins of this expression have to do with not geese, but horses! This phrase most likely originated in the 16th century with a type of horse race where a single horse would start running through a path in the woods. A second horse would follow the first one, trying to follow the path of the lead horse exactly. More subsequent horses would follow, until the race reminded spectators of a flock of geese all exactly following the one in front – but admittedly wilder. Hence, wild goose chase.

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