More Facts About Words and Phrases Learned While Looking Up Other Things

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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.

Right off the bat — As expected, the phrase “right off the bat,” meaning “immediately; at once; without delay” is a sports metaphor that has been traced back to the late 1880s with that usage. I just made the assumption that the sport was baseball—and it probably is—but some suggest that it may have originated with cricket (just as baseball did).

Nitpicker — The word nitpicker means someone who finds faults, however small or unimportant, everywhere they look. We all know someone like that. If we don’t, it’s probably us. The word itself is relatively new, from about 1950 or so. It comes from the idea of picking nits (or lice eggs) out of someone’s hair. A nitpicker is as meticulous about finding faults as a literal nitpicker should be at finding each louse egg. Yes, that’s kind of a digusting word origin, which is why nitpicker has negative connotations.

Top-notch — We know that top-notch means “excellent” or “of the highest quality.” But, what are its origins? It seems that no one really knows. It first appeared suddenly in its current usage in the mid-19th century. It has been suggested that it originated from one of several tossing games imported from Scotland that required a player to throw a weighted object over a horizontal bar. The best score would be when the bar was in the “top notch,” naturally. This sounds reasonable, but it’s really just a guess. Other guesses have it relating to logging, with the best lumberjacks able to cut from the highest notches, or some such thing. Another had something to do with candles and courting, but that’s been mostly debunked. Bottom line: we don’t know.

Since Hector was a pup — Meaning “for a long time.” I can’t say this is exactly a regional colloquialism, although I heard it the first (and only) time from one of my high school buddies nearly four decades ago, in South Carolina. He said that it was something his dad always said, and, in the context it was used, the meaning was obvious. I’ve used it myself since then. Y’know, because . . . words. Best guess, according to Internet sources, is that it is referring to the Trojan War hero Hector, since the phrase originated during a time when people were more well-versed in the classics. And that was, indeed, a long time ago.

Hemming and hawing — The phrase means to hesitate to give a definite answer. It dates back to the 1400s and is echoic in nature. A more modern interpretation would be “um-ing and er-ing” probably, with “um” and “er” being commmon filler sounds in hesitant speech. I always assumed it had something to do with either sewing or sailing. I was mistaken.

Gamut — I used the word “gamut,” knowing that its definition meant the complete range or scope of something. My actual sentence began “our entertainment choices run the gamut from …” But, where did the word “gamut” come from? It turns out that gamut originally meant “lowest note in the medieval musical scale” and was a contraction of Medieval Latin gamma ut, from gamma, the Greek letter indicating a note below A, plus ut (later called do (as in “do re mi”)), the low note on the six-note musical scale. So the word gamut was originally all about music, but later morphed into meaning “the whole musical scale,” or, figuratively, “the entire range or scale” of anything. Its first usage in this manner can be traced to the 1620s.

Honeymoon — The word and concept of the honeymoon owes more than a little to alcohol (as do some weddings: but, I digress—). The medieval tradition of drinking honeyed wine for a full moon cycle after a wedding was supposed to ensure a fruitful union between the new bride and groom. I guess Champagne is a modern-day analogue to honey wine.

Throwback — It means a person or thing that is similar to something of a earlier type or time. It was already in use with more or less the current definition in the mid-19th century. It is a combination of the verb “throw” and the adverb “back.” I can’t find a more pithy origin story for the word, even apocryphal stories that have been debunked. I was sure it would have its origin in the sport of fishing.

Venting your spleen — This particular idiom means “to express your anger.” From medieval times until the 19th century, the spleen—an organ in the body near the stomach—was thought to be the source of the “humours” that caused the emotion of anger. This is a colorful and archaic phrase. I contracted mononucleosis as a full-grown adult. I don’t remember kissing anyone other than my wife, but there was a memorable pub crawl in Key West during Bike Week. But, I digress— Anyway, my spleen was swollen while I had mono. I don’t recall being angry, but I did sleep a lot.

One to grow on — I thought an origin for this idiom would be easy to find, but it remains mostly a mystery. I’m not sure if this is a tradition anywhere but the Southern US, where corporal punishment was an artform when I was a child. When you had a birthday, it was a tradition to receive your birthday spanking by your friends or family, with the flat of the hand or with a paddle or belt. One person on-line said the birthday person would be “lightly paddled.” They didn’t live anywhere near me. Anyway, you’d get one swat for each year of your age, and then one extra swat, called the “one to grow on.” It’s like the baker’s dozen of birthday-themed beatings. Still don’t know the origins. Here’s one guess: you say something “grows on” you to mean that you become accustomed to it. Is the birthday punishment tradition meant for you to get used to pain because that’s all adulthood has to offer you in the future? That’s a little bleak, but it will serve as a placeholder until someone can offer me a better explanation.

* * * * *

As a lover of words, I know I’ll keep collecting these. Plus, I’ll keep posting them, I’m sure.

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