By Alan Graner
Many of the phrases below come from A Hog on Ice and Other Curious Expressions by Charles Earle Funk (1972).
A feather in one’s cap
During the middle ages a man who distinguished himself, especially in battle, wore an actual feather in his hat or on his helmet to indicate his prowess.
The jig is up
Around 1600 in England, “jig” became a slang term for a practical joke. When the victim caught on to the joke, he said the jig is up to indicate he was no longer fooled.
To be caught flat-footed
The term is thought to come from American football. When a receiver caught a pass and was tackled before he could move, he was caught “flat-footed.
The lion’s share
Aesop told the fable of a lion, an ass and a fox who went hunting. They agreed beforehand that any game caught was to be divided equally among the three. When they killed a stag, the ass was appointed to apportion the shares, which he did with exactitude. The lion, thinking he deserved more because he was larger and stronger, grew enraged and killed the ass. The cunning fox, noting this, nibbled a small piece of meat and gave the rest to the lion as “the lion’s share.”
A red letter day
During the 15th century holy dates were marked in red on calendars, a custom still followed on modern calendars to denote Sundays and other important dates.
Not dry behind the ears
As any farmer knows, the last spot to dry on a newborn animal is the little depression behind the ears.
Pass the buck
During the second half of the 19th century poker became extremely popular. Because players were wary of cheaters, they would routinely change dealers. A token of some kind was placed in front of the dealer to indicate it was his turn. Often the token was a buck knife, or “buck,” so called because the handle was made from a buck’s horn. When the dealer’s turn was over, he “passed the buck” to the next one.
When silver dollars became popular, they were often used as the buck, which is why a dollar today is known as a “buck.”
Starting from scratch
This 18th century term referred to a scratch in the ground—a starting point. At the beginning of a boxing match, the scratch was where the two fighters stood. When they were “up to scratch,” the bout could begin. At the beginning of a race, all the runners would approach the scratch and “toe the line” to keep the race fair. Today, when you cook something “from scratch,” you start at the very beginning with nothing pre-made.
To eat crow
During the armistice after the War of 1812, many soldiers on both sides of the line (a river) hunted for food. An American soldier crossed the river in hopes of bigger game. When he found nothing, he shot a passing crow. As the Yank reloaded, an unarmed British officer appeared and remarked on the amazing shot. When he asked the American if he might see his rifle, the naïve youth handed it over, whereupon he suddenly was looking down the muzzle of his own gun. The British officer reminded the soldier he had violated the armistice line and, as punishment, ordered the young man to take a bite out of the crow. Satisfied that justice had been done, the officer returned the rifle and walked off. The quick-witted American then pointed the rifle at the officer and ordered him to eat the rest of the crow. The officer begged, pleaded and bribed the American, but to no avail. Threatened with death, the officer humbly ate the crow.
Alan Graner is Chief Creative Officer at Daly-Swartz Public Relations in Orange County, CA. He dines on crow regularly. If your current PR program isn’t up to scratch, email Jeffrey Swartz at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’ll give you a new start.