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It'll end in tears
January 24, 2006 6:39 PM   Subscribe

Colloquial phrases endure, even after their meaning is no longer understood. Some are surprising and others are surprisingly malevolent. Some of my favorites are of exactly that theme. Do you have any favorites?
posted by uni verse (47 comments total)

 
I always thought that the proverbial handbasket referred to how the helpless baby Moses was set to drift in the Nile in a basket, thusly, people are helplessly set to drift strait to hell. Pure speculation.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:53 PM on January 24, 2006


I've actually always wanted to compile a book just like this. I'm glad to see that someone else has done it, so I can sit around and do nothing with a clear conscience. Thanks for the link.
posted by brundlefly at 7:01 PM on January 24, 2006


I used this just the other day in a thread.

It makes me feel a bit hungry just thinking about it.
posted by strawberryviagra at 7:05 PM on January 24, 2006


This is a really cool resource.

It's neat to know that "the whole nine yards" is of unknown, and disputed, origin.

Thanks for this.
posted by teece at 7:18 PM on January 24, 2006


"cotton-pickin' hands", as in:

"Get your cotton-pickin' hands off that!"

Today this phrase sounds colorful, home-spun, and innocent (if you don't think about it too much), and I have heard it used by very progressive people. Who would have probably have slunk out of the room if they realized what they were saying.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 7:26 PM on January 24, 2006


Wow, Slithy, that never occurred to me. Yeow!
posted by Malor at 7:31 PM on January 24, 2006


Phrase Finder is a great resource. Thanks for making such a nicely constructed post about it. I refer to this site a lot; it's not always definitive, but it's very, very good.
posted by Miko at 7:36 PM on January 24, 2006


It's neat to know that "the whole nine yards" is of unknown, and disputed, origin.

It's evidence of transdimensional hopping from timeline to timeline. In TheOtherTimeline, the phrase was coined during WW2 as is often given and entered common printed use shortly thereafter. In the 2300's, their time-travel researchers sent a subject back to the mid 1960s, but to our 1960s, which were otherwise very similar*, where he was accidentally left. Unable to tell the difference between his own timeline and ours, he used the phrase frequently without knowing that he was introducing it.

Stop looking at me like that.

*The other timeline's only other distinguishing feature is that Gary Coleman is of normal stature and is a prosperous garnish farmer living near Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:40 PM on January 24, 2006


"Chance your arm." I've always liked, and my mother sometimes uses "stone a crow" (used always in exasperation). More words and phrases here.
posted by Zack_Replica at 7:47 PM on January 24, 2006


Excellent reference, it's great to see where some of these sayings come from.
posted by nightchrome at 8:02 PM on January 24, 2006


Well, I'll be a monkey to a marble.

Actually, I just made that up.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:24 PM on January 24, 2006


"Colloquial phrases endure, even after their meaning is no longer understood."

Which begs the question: why isn't "begging the question" listed on the site?
posted by Goblindegook at 8:35 PM on January 24, 2006


It took me a long time to make any sense of even straightforward ones like "waste not, want not", (Growing up, to me "want" meant "desire", not "lack"),
Or "have your cake and eat it too" ("have" meant "own", not "keep")

There are a bunch of others where the older word useage confounded me all my childhood :)
posted by -harlequin- at 9:01 PM on January 24, 2006


I once saw a British competitive darts championship late at night on ESPN2, and at one point the commentator shouted, "He's takin' a walk in the park with a dog and a chimp!"

Any ideas what that may mean?

He also said, "He's like a panzer in a kindergarten!" It's pretty obvious what the means, and it rocks.
posted by brundlefly at 10:39 PM on January 24, 2006


speaking of racist colloquialisms, I had an interesting conversation with a friend from the south a while back about the phrase "mighty white of you."

I guess this was a common phrase indicating that someone had done something of good character?

I'm from the west coast, so I had never even heard it before, but apparently older folks down south occasionally still use it, to others' chagrin...
posted by stenseng at 12:08 AM on January 25, 2006


Where in the south, stenseng? Never heard that before (and rather glad I haven't).
posted by brundlefly at 12:16 AM on January 25, 2006


one of the carolinas I think... I'm not real clear on that one - it was a party conversation
posted by stenseng at 12:18 AM on January 25, 2006


found an example of it here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_common_phrases_based_on_stereotypes
posted by stenseng at 12:23 AM on January 25, 2006


rather, here
posted by stenseng at 12:23 AM on January 25, 2006


Great link, stenseng. Interesting that "white lie" is listed as a phrase based on sterotypes. I searched within the first link of the FPP, and found this. I'm wondering if it's the inherent racism of comparing white/good to black/evil here, or if there's a specific racist reason for the phrase.
posted by brundlefly at 12:53 AM on January 25, 2006


I've always been partial to sayings that really don't make sense, e.g., "draw a line in the sand" (assuming tides don't exist) and "near miss" (one of the lesser beauty pageant titles).

But my Southrun mama had some great ones, from threats ("I'm gonna snatch you baldheaded!" and "I'm gonna knock you into the middle of next week!") to insults ("He didn't lick it off no rock," referring to someone who takes after a parent or relative).
posted by rob511 at 1:15 AM on January 25, 2006


From what I know "line in the sand" was a literal line drawn in the sand outside the Alamo, those who wanted to fight were supposed to step across it. There is even a memorial plaque there nowadays with the line rendered in brass or some such.
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 2:05 AM on January 25, 2006


Interesting stuff indeed... I always thought "The Whole 9 Yards" was somehow related to football, but I was always confused as to why it was 9. No mention of football at ALL in that link though...

On of my favourites is all the minced oaths
posted by antifuse at 2:10 AM on January 25, 2006


"mighty white of you."

I used to hear this a lot but I was a dating a native woman at the time. Very uncomfortable to be on the receiving end.
posted by srboisvert at 2:50 AM on January 25, 2006


I always thought the phrase was ' (insert subject) was going to hell in a handbasket' As in the subject was turning to shit and no one was trying to stop it, almost wanting to help it too. I've never wondered about the phrase. The woven wheelchair they talk about seems downright ridiculous. Of course I've never heard anyone say 'Go to hell in a handbasket'. That seems downright ridiculous too.
posted by Phantomx at 3:00 AM on January 25, 2006


I've always assumed "in a handbasket" was a deliberately absurd intensifier, as in "Christ on a bike!" or "God in boots!"
posted by Phanx at 4:13 AM on January 25, 2006


What Miko said. It's far more trustworthy than most such sites; they understand the most important thing: "There are many phrases in the language that we have to say 'I don't know where that comes from'." Their discussion of "the whole nine yards" is exemplary: "no one knows the origin, although many have a fervent belief that they do." Remember, everyone: "Somebody told me..." is not etymology!
posted by languagehat at 5:22 AM on January 25, 2006


I've always been curious about the phrase "get down to brass tacks". The Straight Dope had a long-running commentary on what its origin may have been, including a row of tacks along the counter of a dressmaker's shop that would have been used to measure cloth. The most satisfactory and simple explanation I've heard, though, is that it's cockney rhyming slang for "facts"--"get down to facts".
posted by Turtles all the way down at 5:33 AM on January 25, 2006


Wow. I'd never realized "cotton pickin' hands".

My brother used a good one this morning. I was asking him to machine a few rollers for me, and he asked what material. I answered (PTFE, Nylon and Brass), and he said "I've never worked PTFE, but the other two are a gravy train with biscuit wheels."
posted by eriko at 5:37 AM on January 25, 2006


I wish "toe the line" were in there -- it makes me nuts how often "tow the line" gets past editors.
posted by alumshubby at 7:59 AM on January 25, 2006


"mighty white of you."

It may have just been my dad blowing smoke up my ass, but I was told that this phrase originated in the South due to a gentlemen's club named after the founder John White. According to my dad, it meant that you were a nice person and well-behaved as the club members.

The only time I've ever heard the phrase used, however, has been in a sarcastic context, i.e. "The boss man's letting me have Christmas day off, that's mighty white of him."

This has always been one of my favorite phrases.

And Rob511, Southern Mamas and Granmamas always have the best lines. My favorites were "Slicker than goose snot through a tin horn.", "I'll beat you six ways from Sunday.", "At least his mama loves him.", and my favorite, "Sweatin like a whore on Sunday."

I always wondered if the whore was sweating because she was nervous about being in church, or if it was because she had so much work to do with all the wives away at church?
posted by teleri025 at 8:26 AM on January 25, 2006


This is fantastic. As a sidenote, I also have only heard "mighty white of you" sarcastically.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:41 AM on January 25, 2006


It took me a long time to make any sense of even straightforward ones like "waste not, want not", (Growing up, to me "want" meant "desire", not "lack"), Or "have your cake and eat it too" ("have" meant "own", not "keep")
There are a bunch of others where the older word useage confounded me all my childhood :)


Harelequin: I had this trouble with "Pretty is as pretty does." I think it's due not only to archaicisms, but also because of cognitive development. Some of these phrases encapsulate an idea very abstractly (Have your cake and eat it...WTF?) , confusing kids who are still in the concrete phase.
posted by Miko at 8:53 AM on January 25, 2006


Eh. At least it's better than wikipedia, where the great unwashed venture their slurs upon us.
(I used to have a fun book called Hog on Ice, which dealt with a whole slew of rural Americanisms...)
posted by klangklangston at 9:59 AM on January 25, 2006


teleri025, I enjoyed your link, especially the alternative version, I'm going to see a dog about a man," ha ha. You had to be there.
posted by uni verse at 10:32 AM on January 25, 2006


Eh. At least it's better than wikipedia

Do you have any actual complaints, or are you just demonstrating your ability to sneer at anything whatever?
posted by languagehat at 12:26 PM on January 25, 2006


No "fuck you and the horse you road in on"? Hmph.
posted by deborah at 12:49 PM on January 25, 2006


rode in on
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:02 PM on January 25, 2006


Weird. I thought it was rowed.
posted by gigawhat? at 2:30 PM on January 25, 2006


"Smooth as shit from a duck's ass."
posted by brundlefly at 4:36 PM on January 25, 2006


Lhat: While it's decent for the general ambiguity regarding phrase origins, I don't like that it seems to have precicely zero citations for their origins. Which means that I can't put a lot of faith in them, especially when they're giving a couple of different possible explanations and choosing one over another, seemingly arbitrarily. And Wikipedia? Well, that "Finlandization" is on there as an ethnic stereotype is a good place to begin regarding the reliability of it as a resource.
posted by klangklangston at 5:31 PM on January 25, 2006


"useful at tits on a boar hog" is another goodie.
posted by stenseng at 5:50 PM on January 25, 2006


I forgot 'swan song': Reportedly swans give song before passing on. So a final gesture.
posted by uni verse at 6:59 PM on January 25, 2006


klang: OK, fair enough. I wasn't complaining about your snark at Wikipedia, just wanted to know what you had against this site, and lack of citations is certainly a reasonable complaint.
posted by languagehat at 6:13 AM on January 26, 2006


The lawyers I used to work for in Boston had never heard the phrase "pot calling the kettle black." That always amused me -- I thought it was so common!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:22 AM on January 26, 2006


Dang... I just thought of one that I use all the time, and have no idea where it came from. This site let me down though... no reference to "Free (as in beer)" :(
posted by antifuse at 9:20 AM on January 26, 2006


I grew up in south Texas, and the phrase "mighty white" was never used as anything but sarcasm and derision. Mostly to bring people down a couple of pegs when they were going on about what a great person they were.
posted by Irontom at 2:17 PM on January 26, 2006


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