Heavens to betsy


One who is a member of a Lodge of Freemasons knows so well the original meaning of this common expression that he will see little occasion for its inclusion here. But there are many who use it freely, however, who suppose it to have some connection with criminal law. Thus, in the United States, a murder that is deliberate is called murder in the first degree; one that is unintentional is murder in the second degree. Wrongly, therefore, it is supposed that some form of crime is in the third degree.

Actually the term “third degree” has no connection with criminality or brutal treatment or mental torture. It refers to the third and final stage of proficiency always demanded of one who seeks to become a Master Mason. In each of the two preceding stages or degrees certain tests of proficiency are required, but before the candidate is fully qualified for the third degree he must undergo a very elaborate and severe test of ability, not even faintly injurious, physically or mentally . It is from this examination that “third degree” became applied to the treatment of prisoners by the police, and it was through the fact that the police sometimes did employ brutality in efforts to extort confession or information that our present expression obtained its common modern meaning.


One who is pretty far down the scale in acting ability. Sylva Clapin, in A New Dictionary of Americanisms.... (1902),. defines such.an actor, or the variant ham.’. “In theatrical parlance, a tenth-rate.    actor or variety performer.” Why such a term was so applied was long a matter of speculation, but it is now generally accepted that ham was an abbreviated form of the earlier appellation, hamfatter’, a term that was especially applied to an actor of low grade, such as a Negro minstrel, back around 1875 and later. The early name derived from the fact that, for economic reasons, these actors used ham fat, instead of cold cream, to remove the necessarily liberal applications of make-up. The term ham is now also applied to third- or fourth-rate pugilists, ball-players, and other poorly skilled athletes or entertainers, and, though with no contempt, to the large army of well-equipped amateur radio operators, probably because, in the early days of radio, these operators were fumbling novices.

                                       TO HAVE UP ONE’S SLEEVE

To have (something) in reserve in case of need; an alternative. Usually it is some bit of testimony, evidence, argument, plan, or project, or the like, that one has up his sleeve in readiness to spring or act upon if or when the original proposal turns out unsuccessfully. Or, in a bad sense, it may be that the villain in the play may have a scheme up his sleeve ready to spring and cause one’s undoing. The allusion traces back to the costumes of the fifteenth century. In those days a man’s garments were not made with the numerous pockets that modem man considers indis-pensable; in fact, there were none. Though some essential items were commonly hung from a belt, it was a god-send when some genius found that by making his often detachable sleeves slightly fuller between elbow and wrist he could tuck var-ious necessities into those new found pockets. The fashion went to ridiculous extremes, of course, with capacious sleeves sometimes almost scraping the ground. But while it lasted, until new styles came in with Henry VIII, man could conceal any variety of things up his sleeve.


Yes, that’s the way Shakespeare wrote it; not as one so often hears it, “to gild the lily.” It’s to be found in King John , Ac t IV , scene 2. The king who seized the throne unjustly after the death of his brother Richard in 1199 believed toward the close of his reign that a second coronation might strengthen his position and bolster the waning affections of his subjects. Lords Pembroke and Salisbury, among others, thought that to be an altogether superfluous gesture, and Salisbury, among others, thought that to be an altogether superfluous gesture, and Salisburg added:

                    Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,

                    To guard a title that was rich before,

                    To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,

                    To throw a perfume on the violet,

                    To smooth the ice, or add another hue

                    Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light

                    To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,

                    Is wasteful, and ridiculous excess.


What started this expression, no one knows. Perhaps it was an actual incident; perhaps a real skeleton was found walled up in the closet of some country house concealing some long-hidden family shame or sorrow. At any rate, The Oxford English Dictionary says that this expression and its meaning are known to have been in use before 1845, though it was in that year that the earliest printed usage was recorded. That was by William Makepeace Thackeray in one of his contributions to the magazine, Punch. But the expression undoubtedly struck his fancy, as he used it again as the heading of Chapter L V, “Barnes’s Skeleton Closet,” in The New-comes (1855). However, the   “skeleton” in Sir Barnes Newcome’s closet would not receive much consideration in any but a highly sensitive family. It was merely that he, though “the reigning prince” of the Newcome family after his father’s death, was not well received by the townfolk and country gentry of Newcome, because of his own arrogance, along with a bullying attitude toward his wife. The chapter relates, in the author’s words, “Some particulars regarding the Newcome family, which will show that they have a skeleton or two in their closets, as well as their neighbours.”


In the days when “carpet” retained its original sense, “a thick fabric used to cover tables,” to have something “on the carpet” had the same meaning that we now give to “on the table”; that is, to have something up for discussion, for consideration. Such was the usage in the early eighteenth century and is still common usage in England, and is, as well, the intent of the French sur le tapis, and the German aufs tapet. But dainty ladies found, even in the fifteenth century, that these thick fabrics also made ideal floor coverings and began to use them, first, in their bed-chambers, and then in other private or formal rooms of a house. But they were for the use of the gentry. The occasions when a servant might “walk the carpet,” as the expression went, was when he or she was called before the mistress or master of the house for a reprimand. Though this latter expression, coined in the early nineteenth century, is still in use, it has been largely replaced, especially in America, by transferring its meaning to “on the carpet.”



If your wife kicks you under the table or otherwise makes it plain to you that it would be best not to go on with what you were about to say, you may, she hopes, understand that she’s trying to head you off from “putting your foot in it,” from committing a social blunder or doing something that had best be left unsaid or undone. The figurative phrase was in current use in the latter part of the eighteenth century, but what the original allusion was is anyone’s guess. Personally, be-cause such a blunder fits so patly, I have always been taken by an old rancher’s literal description of a hand he had recently hired: “I declare, he’s such an ass that if there was just one cow-flop in a ten-acre field he’d be sure to put his foot

in it.”



To blunder; to make a stupid or ridiculous mistake; also, to be a bonehead. By deduction, I figure that this American phrase, of about fifty years’ standing, came from “Bones” or “Mistah Bones” of the old-style minstrel show. Originally there was but one of him, the end man in the show who played the “bones”—two pairs of ebony sticks (or, sometimes, pieces of seasoned and polished rib bones), about one inch wide and six inches long, clapped together in the performer’s fingers. The other end man was “Tambo ” or “Mistah Tambo,” from the tambourine played by him . Both end men were later called “Bones,” but in either case the “interlocutor,” sitting in the midle of the line, directed such questions at the end men as would bring out jests or would evoke ridiculous answers or stupid blunders. He would, that is , “pull boners” from them.


Why do even those among us who loudly proclaim utter freedom from superstition feel just a bit reluctant to state that such-and-such calamity has never happened without immediately feeling an urge to tap on some solid piece of wood? As everyone knows, the act is supposed to avert evil or misfortune which otherwise might attend vainglorious speech.

No one knows how the superstition arose, but George Stimpson, in A Book about a Thousand Things (1946), which the publishers, Harper & Brothers, permit me to quote, presents some of the numerous theories that have been offered. He says:

                    Some attribute it to the old game known as “touching wood” or

                    “wood tag,” in which a player who succeeds in touching wood

                    is safe from capture. Others hold that this game and “knocking

                    on wood” had a common origin in primitive tree worship, when

                     trees were believed to harbor protective spirits. To rap on a tree

                    —the dwelling place of a friendly spirit—was to call up the spirit

                    of the tree to protect one against impending misfortune. Later,

                    people would place the hand on a wooden statue of a deity

                    for the same purpose. It is said that among certain European peasants it

                    is still common to knock loudly on wood to keep away evil spirits.

                    Still others believe the superstition is of Christian origin and that

                    it is in some way associated with the wooden cross upon which

                     Jesus was crucified. Perhaps, they think, it is a survival of the

                    religious rite of touching a crucifix when taking an oath or the

                     beads of the rosary when praying.


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