Humorous Souces of Popular Expressions: A list of the origins for common phases like "getting fired.

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The following list consists of expressions that for one reason or another have personally interested me. This list wasn't simply copied and pasted from some other webpage. Prior to posting an explanation, I researched it until I was able to find at least two independent and credible references that agree. However, even with such diligence it appears I may have been mislead. I want to express my gratitude to Mr. Tom Oldani, who very kindly sent alternative explanations with references for many of the terms on this list. (Thanks, Tom!) I have posted these corrections below the original explanations.

NEW!!! Murphy's Law: "If anything can go wrong, it will."

In popular use for over half a century, controversy abounds as to the origins of this adage. The philosophy behind the phrase, if not this exact wording, has been around since before written history. These earlier forms are used referred to as Sod's Law or Finagle's Corollary. ("Sod" refers to any poor "sod.")

Most experts attribute the modern Murphy's Law to USAF Captain Edward Murphy, a research engineer at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949. Upon learning that a rocket sled test failed because a technician wired the sensors wrong, Murphy is reported to have exclaimed, "If there is any way to do it wrong, he'll do it." For some reason the phrase caught on and began evolving. The press got a hold of it when during a press conference the man who eventually rode the sled commented that the reason he survived is that everyone on the project paid close attention to "Murphy's Law." When asked to explain he used the form we're familiar with today.


"Top Banana"

This expression originated in the burlesque era. There was an extremely popular comedy skit in which the main comic was given a banana after delivering the punch line to a particularly funny joke. The skit and joke were so widely known that the term "top banana" was coined to refer to anyone in the top position of an organization. I assume the term "second banana," referring to someone in a lesser position, had a similar origin from the same skit.


Where "Bikini" came from

When the French fashion designer who invented the two-peace bathing suit was about to reveal his creation, he looked around for a name that was attract a attention. At that time, the world press was full of accounts of the US military's testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs on the, you guessed it, Bikini atoll. It was a name that was on everyone's lips so the designer adopted it for his new swim suit. The idea was that it would have as much effect on the beach and an A bomb. (By the way, the original bikini was strapless. Shoulder straps were added later because the tops evolved into being so small that they weren't self supporting.)

Where "getting fired" came from

In medieval times, one way of getting rid of someone without killing them, or if you couldn't find them, was to burn down their house. Hence the origin of "getting fired."

CORRECTION: cites without reference that an alternative explanation for this expression is that it refers to a bullet being shot out of a gun. Possible expansions upon this is that just as the bullet leaves the gun, so someone fired leaves their employer. Alternately, getting fired could equate to being shot.


Origin of the cliche', "Keep your nose to the grindstone."

In the milling of flour in old mills, the fineness of the grind is determined by the separation between the two grinding stones. If the stones are too far apart, the flour is coarse. Too close, and heat builds up and can burn the flour. The most diligent millers, who produced the finest flour, learned to close the gap down until they could just smell the flour browning, then ease the stones apart enough to prevent burning. This required constant attention and much effort to keep the stones aligned at this optimum distance. Hence the origin of the expression, "Keep your nose to the grindstone," to mean for someone to pay close attention to what they are doing and to work hard.


Origin of "The Bird"

This universal expression of disapproval, also referred to as "the one-fingered salute" may have originated 600 years ago in France. The story is that in 1415, shortly before the battle of Agincourt, the French, anticipating a victory over the English, decided to cut the middle finger off all the prisoners so that in the future they wouldn't be able to shoot the powerful English longbow. As it happened, the English were victorious and mocked the French by waving their middle fingers, still attached to their hands of course, at the French. Calling it "The Bird" resulted as a reference to the feathers used to fletch the English arrows. Since first hearing of this explanation, I've also hear that the original English response was to wave both the index and middle finger in a "V" at the French. Somewhere, the index was dropped.

While watching episode two of Jeeves and Wooster written by Wodehouse around the 1920s, I noticed that Wooster mentioned a crowd of people would probably give his friend "the bird" in an unfavorable response to a prank Wooster had set up. This utterance was made quite calmly in the presence of a lady who would have certainly been insulted by it if it had then expressed the crude meaning it carries today. This suggests that the current vulgar definition for "the bird" is a fairly recent development, one I fear that supports the supposition that the human race is allowing itself to coarsen with time.


Sources of other popular expressions:

1. In Shakespeare's time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes, the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. That's where the phrase, "goodnight, sleep tight" came from.

CORRECTION: says that the Oxford English Dictionary states "tight" used to mean the same as "soundly." Hence "sleep tight" simply meant "sleep soundly."

2. It was the accepted practice in Babylon 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the "honey month" or what we know today as the honeymoon."

CORRECTION: claims that the first period of marriage was the sweetest and therefore became known as the "honeymoon." The reference cited is an old English poem.

3. In English pubs, ale is ordered by pints and quarts. So in old England, when customers got unruly, the bartender would yell at them mind their own pints and quarts and settle down. It's where we get the phrase "mind your P's and Q's".

CORRECTION: cites without reference that an alternative explanation for this expression is that it came from grammar school teachers using it to remind students not to confuse the small "p" with "q," which look alike.

4. Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed refill, they used the whistle to get some service. "Wet your whistle," is the phrase inspired by this practice.

CORRECTION: cites without reference that an alternative explanation for this expression is that it came from the fact the the term "whistle" used to refer to the throat. "Wet your Whistle" then simply meant to have a drink.

5. In ancient England, a person could not have sex unless you had consent of the King (unless you were in the Royal Family). When anyone wanted to have a baby, they got consent of the King, the King gave them a placard that they hung on their door while they were having sex. The placard had F.*.*.*. (Fornication Under Consent of the King) on it. Now you know where the "F" word came from.

Correction! In April, 2004, Cory very kindly sent me the URL to a site that explains why the above is incorrect. I recommend everyone check it out for themselves. The URL is: The upshot is that acronyms did not appear until recently so that the explanation above could not be true.

6. In Scotland, a new game was invented. It was entitled Gentlemen Only - Ladies Forbidden... and thus the word GOLF entered into the English language.

CORRECTION: Mr. Oldani explained that Golf was not an acronym but a simple respelling of the the game's original name: gauf. In light of the revelation about acronyms in #5 and that GOLF would be an acronym, this carries some weight.

7. Around 1900 in London, the first panda bear was placed on display. It's cute teddy-bear appearance and entertaining antics were so enchanting to the British that enormous crowds spent hours jostling to get a glimpse of them. Hence the expression: pandemonium.

CORRECTION: Shonni very kindly sent me an email explaining that the true source for this word comes from John Milton's 1667 epic Paradise Lost in which he coins the term "pandeamonium" for the name of the capital of hell.

I looked into this and determined that there is merit in this claim, as well as the original explanation above.

During the 1800s the word pandeamonium evolved from referring to just the capitol of hell to an adjective describing any place of vice a depravity. Then, sometime very early in the 1900s it changed again to mean any great uproar, which can have positive connotations. The spelling was also simplified to pandemonium.

I believe what happened is that some enterprising newspaper report who was familiar with the older term, recoined it to describe the uproar surrounding the panda bear incident. The similarity of the sounds of panda and the similarly pronounced pandeamonium was too close to have been missed.


8. "...Yanky doodle went to town, riding on a pony; stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni."

Ever wonder what the feather and macaroni meant? The song was written by the British as a put-down to Americans. At the time, there was a very exclusive London club called Macaroni whose theme was to dress up in only the best and newest styles. The idea in the song was that Americans were so stupid that they dress up by sticking a feather in their caps and think they were good enough for the Macaroni club.

I gather today's equivalent would be to show up at an exclusive Paris fashion show wearing rags. Wait a minute... wasn't that in style last year?

CORRECTION: states that there never was a formal club named "Macaroni." Rather, the expression "He's a macaroni" was used to describe an individual who affected an extreme style of over-the-top dress and manners. References to people "belonging to the macaroni club" was a simple idiom of collection, not a reference to an actual club. The equivelent today would be to say he "belongs to the club of men wearing their pants below their buttocks."

My reference for the claim that there really was an actual Macaroni club was the television show "Good Eats," hosted by Alton Brown and additional Internet research by myself.

9. In 1945, an IBM researcher named Grace Hopper was trying to fix a problem in one of the first electronic computers. She discovered a moth jamming a relay and coined the term "bug" for any computer glitch.

CORRECTION: states that the term "bug" was identified in the Old English Dictionary as far back as 1889 as referring to any glitch in a mechanical device. This seems to negate peaple associating this expression to Ms. Hopper.


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