Facts About Words and Phrases Learned While Looking Up Other Things


As always, I give all credit for the idea of this post to the late journalist Sydney J. Harris, who would occasionally include something he called “Things I Learned While Looking Up Other Things” in his syndicated column.

This is a post about words and phrases. As a writer, these are my building blocks, so they’re something I’m always interested in. As writers, you understand the sometimes frustrating task of trying to find the correct word or phrase. The right word or phrase.

Occasionally, I’ll read or type words that I may understand in the context in which I’m seeing or using them, but will suddenly realize that I’m not certain where the words or phrases originated. In this amazing Computer Age we’re in, I can afford a few minutes of distraction to investigate them further. These investigations, in this post, become more grist for the mill.

  • Case in point: grist for the mill is a phrase that means something is useful for a particular purpose or supports your argument. Literally, grist would be the corn ground into flour by the mill, although I can’t recall an occasion where I’ve heard this phrase used in a literal way.
  • The origin of the phrase mind your p’s and q’s is not known for certain. Among the suggested origins: the phrase is related to learning the alphabet and the distinction of writing lower-case p’s and q’s, with the vertical line placed before or after the circle. Or, p’s and q’s means “please” and “thank yous,” since the ending of the latter sounds like “q.” Or, it originated in English pubs, in which bartenders would keep an eye on the alcohol tally by minding their “pints” and “quarts.” So, the answer to the question, “What does ‘mind your p’s and q’s’ actually come from?” is “We’re not sure, but we have a few guesses.”
  • The word series is already a plural. When talking about more than one series, you still say “series.” Ex: The Flash is my favorite series out of all the DC television series. The word has no singular form. Since I write a lot about television series, I discovered this early on.
  • Other words existing only in plural form: scissors, jeans, binoculars, glasses (as in eyeglasses), pants, pyjamas, trousers. Funnily enough, some of these can assume the singular form when used as a modifier, such as scissor kick, pyjama pants, eyeglass case or trouser pocket. Therefore, you might argue that they do exist in the singular form, just not as nouns. I just blew my own mind.
  • Concerning the phrase old hat. I described something as “old hat” in one of my posts. I knew what it meant. In the sense of the phrase since the 20th century, “old hat” means something that is archaic or obsolete. But, I started to wonder about the origin of the phrase and looked it up. Its earliest usage in its current meaning was found in 1911. However, “old hat” had a different meaning in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a slang expression referring to the female private parts. The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796) defines “old hat” as “a woman’s privities, because frequently felt.” This, I’m certain, was meant to be a vulgar pun. When I used the phrase, however, I meant “archaic or obsolete.” I want to make that perfectly clear.
  • I frequently type the word “that” when I mean to type the word “than.” But, seldom, it seems, do I make the mistake in the opposite order. I assume this means that I type “that” more often. I probably type “that” when I should type “which” even more often.
  • The technical name for the symbol # isn’t “hashtag” or even “pound” (which I still call it) or “number sign.” It’s octothorpe. The octo portion is because of the eight points. The -thorpe function is kind of a mystery, still. Some propose it was named after Jim Thorpe; others say it just ain’t true.
  • This fun fact comes courtesy of my lovely wife Sharon. The phrase hands down, which I’ve used for decades without knowing where it came from, has its origins in the sport of horse racing, dating back to the middle of the 19th Century. When a horse was so far ahead of the pack that a win was assured, a jockey would loosen his grip on the reins and drop his hands as he and the horse approached the finish line. I love learning this. Here in Arkansas, we have the famous Oaklawn Park horse racing venue, you know.
  • I recently used the word jag in a sentence. It’s one of those words you understand, even if you don’t know what it means exactly. Like saying someone was on a “crying jag.” It means the same thing as “spree,” but you never hear about someone going on a “killing jag.” In the 17th century, it came to mean “as much drink as a man can hold,” but morphed into “a period of unrestrained activity” sometime in the 19th. As opposed to JAG, which means Judge Advocate General, and was a television series that I never watched for an entire decade.
  • Interestingly enough—to me, at least—the word jagoff is considered to be an American slang term, chiefly from the western Pennsylvania or Pittsburgh area, meaning “a stupid, irritating, or contemptible person.” I’d heard the word before and just thought it was a variant of “jack-off.” Turns out that the people of the area don’t consider it to be obscene, or the same thing as “jack-off.” It’s just a general term of disparagement. Michael Keaton, a native of the Pittsburgh area, used the word several times in the movies Night Shift and Gung Ho. I wonder if Fred Rogers ever said it.
  • Savvy is another one of those words you understand without knowing the origin or the exact definition of. You often hear of people who are “computer savvy” or “politically savvy.” It means shrewdness or practical knowledge. The word’s origins date back to the late 18th century as a West Indies pidgin borrowing of French savez(-vous) “do you know?” or Spanish sabe (usted) “you know.” Used as a verb today—”do you savvy?”—it means the same as “understand.” Savvy?

The truth is, I could keep going with words and phrases. I know I’ll keep collecting them. But, for now, we’ve reached the end of the line.

End of the line, of course, is an idiom referring to the end of a travel route, primarily concerning trains or buses. By extension, we commonly use the phrase to mean reaching the conclusion of something.

2 thoughts on “Facts About Words and Phrases Learned While Looking Up Other Things

  1. Really interesting. I especially like the bit about plural words that dont exist in singular form. Never thought about it! I also like the meaning behind savvy, since I have that word in my business name. Great post! I’m a fan of speculative fiction, too, so I’ll be clicking the follow button. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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