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Saturday, November 13, 2004 

So you think you know English?

We use these phrases and expressions almost daily in the English language. Did you ever wonder what their orgins were? I found a few common expressions that I've used over the years and researched their etymology (That branch of philological science which treats of the history of words, tracing out their origin, primitive significance, and changes of form and meaning.--Websters) Here is a list of them:

Let the cat out of the bag.
Meaning: To disclose a secret.
Origin: A favourite country trick used to be to substitute a cat for a pig at markets. If you let the cat out of the bag you disclosed the trick - and avoided buying a pig in a poke (bag).

Lock, stock and barrel
Meaning: The whole thing.
Origin: From the parts that constitute a flintlock rifle.

Pass the buck.
Pass the responsibility onto someone else.
Origin: From the card game poker. A buck was a marker that indicated whose turn it was to deal. Passing the buck moved the deal onto the next player. Silver dollars were later used as markers and this may have been the origin of the use of buck as a slang term for dollar.

Pop goes the weasel.
Meaning: From the nursery rhyme.
Origin: 'Popping' is a slang term for pawning, i.e. depositing articles with a pawnbroker in return for money. Weasel is a corruption of whistle - in cockney rhyming slang 'whistle and flute' i.e. suit. So, 'Up and down the City Road, in and out of The Eagle, that's the way the money goes, pop goes the weasel', describes spending all your money on drink in the pub and subsequently pawning your suit to raise some more.

Quid pro quo.
Meaning: Something given in return for a previous item of equivalent value - like tit for tat. Origin: Latin source - 'something for something'.

Rule of Thumb
Meaning: According to a rough and ready rule.
Origin: This has been said come from the belief that English law once allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick so long as it is was no thicker than his thumb. In 1782 Judge Buller made such a ruling in an English court. It has never been law though and there's no reason to connect the legal case with the phrase, which was in circulation well before 1782. Other explanations come from the numerous ways that thumbs have been used to estimate things - temperature of brews of beer, measurement using the estimated inch from the joint to the nail, etc.

Scot free
Meaning: To escape from pursuers or to get away without payment.
Origin: Ask an American where this phrase comes from and you are likely to be told that it refers to Dred Scott, a slave who crossed from a 'slave state' to a 'free state'. Other explanations are relate to the scot, which was the Scottish term for a unit of taxation. Poor people didn't have to pay tax and so got off 'scot free'. This system of taxation was in use in the middle ages and so pre-dates the Dred Scot story by several hundred years. A slate for marking up drinking bills in pubs was also called a scot. If you got free drinks you would be getting off scot free.

Son of a Gun
Expression of surprise.
Origin: Women on board sailing ships sometimes had sex with sailors between the cannons. A male child born of such a union would be a son of a gun.

Thin red line
Meaning: A line of British soldiers (who wore red jackets).
Origin: Jingoistic folklore in the UK had it that a small group of British soldiers were good enough to hold back a mob of warlike foreigners.

A fate worse than death
Meaning: Rape or loss of virginity
Origin: Probably originated in Victorian England and attested to the belief that a dishonoured woman was better off dead. Still used but ironically of late. Edgar Rice Burroughs used it in his Tarzan of the Apes, 1914. 'The ape ... bearing Jane Porter away toward a fate a thousand times worse than death'.

Molotov cocktail
Meaning: A homemade petrol bomb, usually thrown
Origin: Named after Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Affairs Minister - 1939.