Thursday, August 27, 2020

Why Do They Say . . .?

            As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a word person, fascinated by the English language. With that in mind, I have strung together some of my favorite explanations of words and phrases. When I say “favorite,” that does not mean that they are all true. Those of you inclined to research can figure out how true some of these explanations are. But as we know from the political world, truth is a slippery concept.

Joseph Hooker was a Civil War general who fought for the Union. His primary claim to fame was being defeated by General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. Hooker was known as a hard-drinking ladies’ man, and his headquarters famous for parties and gambling. The women who attended these parties were known as “Hooker’s girls,” and eventually, “hookers.”

Cuppa Joe
“Cuppa Joe” is a frequently use phrase for a cup of coffee. The phrase originated when Joseph Daniels, Secretary of the U.S. Navy, abolished the officers’ wine mess, thus making coffee the strongest drink available on ships. Thus a cup of coffee was called, probably not too fondly, a “cuppa joe.” A coffee shop in Traverse City is called Cuppa Joe, but the people working there do not seem interested when some old guy wants to explain the origin of the phrase.

Some think our phrase “to take a crap” comes from the name, Thomas Crapper, an English plumber and businessman who was very successful in perfecting the water closet (nice term!) by inventing the floating ball-cock and the U-bend trap. He had his name on many of his products, and it is said the American soldiers in England during World I saw his name on the plumbing and said they were “going to the crapper.” The problem with this explanation is that the word appeared in English when Crapper was just ten years old, and there is a better (more likely true) explanation. But I prefer the Thomas Crapper version. Either that, or he was drawn to the plumbing profession because of his name.

The word “trump” is a shortened form of “trumpet,” a tube-like wind instrument. A trump is also a playing card which is elevated above its usual rank in trick-taking games. The trick-taking trump got its name when bombastic card-players would have a trumpet fanfare played whenever they took a trick using a trump card. To trump now refers to any sort of action that automatically prevails over all others, regardless of its merit if it were not thus elevated. Tah-dah!

This term goes back to the dining habits of peasants in the Middle Ages. Furniture was sparse in Medieval England. Bedding was a high priority, and seating was usually on plain benches, if not on the floor itself. If there were one chair, it was given to the person in authority in the household, not because it was comfortable, but because it signified that authority. Thus we have people who “chair” a meeting, and we have the position of Chairman of the Board, the “board” being the plank set across the knees of dining people, who were, in fact, “boarding.”

Living Room
This room, also known as a lounge, sitting room or hall, was distinguished from the parlour, where formal social events took place (parlour – talking), and, importantly, where the recently deceased were laid out before their funeral. In the 1890s the term “living room” was introduced to distinguish it from the room where the deceased were placed. The central importance of the living room yielded, in the 1970s, to larger “family rooms,” thanks to football on large color televisions.

This word occurs only once in print – in the nursery rhyme about Little Miss Muffet. Nobody knows what the word means, though scholarly guesses range from a footstool to a small grassy knoll. But why the word “tuffet”? My guess is that the author was pressed for a rhyme for “Muffet,” so he invented a word. 

The brand name is not, as commonly understood, the name of the family that founded the company. No, when Japanese automakers came up with designs for smaller automobiles, American manufacturers derisively called them “toy autos.” The Japanese saw marketing opportunities and branded their cars as Toyotas. The family that founded the company went so far as to change their family name – a rare occurrence in such a tradition and family-based culture.

A stringer can be many things: a chain onto which fish are clipped or strung; a long horizontal timber connecting upright posts; a side of a staircase that supports the treads and risers; a person who attaches strings, as to a bow. But I prefer a stringer as a freelance journalist. From Wikipedia:
The etymology of the word is uncertain. Newspapers once paid stringers per inch of printed text they generated. The theory given in the Oxford English Dictionary is that a stringer is a person who strings words together, while others use the term because the reporter is "strung along" by a news organization, or kept in a constant state of uncertainty. Another possibility is that, using a sports analogy, the freelance journalist is seen as a "second string", whereas the staff journalist positions are more of the "first string". (This in turn comes from music, where the first string is the premiere violin in the orchestra, the second string is the next most talented player and so on.)
I can certainly relate to the “constant state of uncertainty, as I’ve been doing this blog for six years, and I’m often uncertain whether I can come up with something to write about. I do string words together. And I know I’m a second Stringer because of my older brother, Bob.
bow stringer

            That’s all I have today. If you want to know just how true some of these are, write and ask. Or if you know some interesting word or phrase origin stories, however real, let me know and I will pass them along.

1 comment:

  1. I'm surprised that you neglected to mention another definition of stringer: a birder who habitually reports rare birds that no one is able to relocate afterward, raising suspicions about his or her honesty. If you recall, when I notified Florida's birding community that David and Kim Stringer had found a Sage Thrasher on St. George Island, at least one birder (and perhaps many more than one) thought it was a practical joke because of your last name, and didn't go to see it.