HEAVENS TO BETSY!
Copyright @ 1955. by Charles Earle Funk
“ renewed 1983 by Beulah M. Funk
published by : Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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TO TAKE FORTY WINKS
Though I’m not saying that the reading of the Thirty-nine Articles has an actual bearing on th e “forty winks” or short nap that is likely to succeed that reading—or interrupt it—such a sequel could be inferred. The Thirty-nine Articles, for the benefit of the unenlightened, are the articles of faith of the Church of England which the clergy are required to accept. Adoption became legal by parliamentary action in 1571 in the reign of Elizabeth I. Needless to say, the perusal of these articles is likely to be considered most dreary . At least they led a writer in Punch (November 16, 1872) to say: “If a . . . man, after reading through the Thirty-nine Articles, were to take forty winks”—and that is the first literary record of this precise number of winks.
TO WALK THE PLANK
To force out of office or position. This refers to a method used in a literal sense for getting rid of undesired persons on shipboard—a method used primarily by pirates or corsairs, especially in the seventeenth century on the Spanish Main, for disposing of unwanted captives in the cheapest, most effective, and least messy way. That is, a plank was laid over the side of the vessel, the captive, hands tied behind, was blindfolded and, by pricks of a dirk or cutlass, compelled to walk along that plank until he fell into the sea.
to play possum
To pretend; to deceive; especially , to feign sickness or death. Early American hunters speedily learned that the opossum is a past master in the art of simulating death. If threatened with capture it will lie with closed eyes and limp muscles, and no amount of handling or ordinary abuse will cause it to show signs of life. Only when thrown into water will it become promptly active. That ability to show every ordinary indication of death gave rise to our expression at least two centuries ago.
as proud as Satan (sin, or Lucifer)
This notion of evil being arrogant, supercilious, or contemptuous arose in the minds of people more than four hundred years ago. The first record in English is in The Pilgrimag e of Perfection (1526) with “as proude as Nabugodonosor [Nebuchadnezzar].” Then came “as proud as Hell,” by Dean Swift in 1711. Then “as proud as Lucifer,” by Madame d’Arblay in 1782. And we have since substituted Satan, sin , the devil, Beelzebub, the Prince of Darkness, Old Scratch , Old Harry, o r whatever synonym of evil may occur to us.
According to the Dictionary of American Politics there was a time, on Southern plantations, back before the Civil War, when “the opening of a barrel of pork caused a rush to be made by the slaves.” Maybe so, though I doubt it. At any rate, even if so it had nothing to do with the present-day political implications of our phrase. Pork is fat, and “fat,” for hundreds of years, has meant plenty, abundance—”ye shall eat the fat of the land.” Thus, anything especially lucrative or richly rewarding became “fat,” and—a hundred years ago, especially in the halls of Congress—by simple transference became “pork.”
Primarily, however, political “pork” in the luxuriant aftermath of the Civil War was any favor, distinction, or governmental money allotted to a district on no other basis than patronage. Later, roughly fifty years ago, when Congressmen began to seek larger . appropriations to impress their constituents, as for river or harbor improvements, public buildings, or the like, such an appropriation became a “pork barrel.”
With no advantage to either; as, to swap knives “even steven.”
Sometimes written with a capital, “Steven,” and sometimes appearing as “Stephen.” We’ve had the phrase as colloquial American for at least a hundred years, in print since 1866, but that is about all one can say of it . It is quite likely that it is nothing more than one of the numerous rhythmical reiteratives in the language, such as dilly-daily, shilly-shally, hodgepodge, ‘ods bods, hocus-pocus, ding dong, hell’s bells, and so on.
‘Way back in Revolutionary times, perhaps earlier, there was a woodsman maxim, “Never waste powder on a dead duck.” From that, “dead duck” became popular slang, still in use, for anything —person or article—that is no longer worth a straw, that is done up, played out.
to give short shrift to
To cut short; to make quick work of. The literal sense appears in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard III, Act IV, scene 4. Lord Hastings has just been sentenced to execution by the Duke of Gloucester, shortly to be declared Richard III, and is interrupted in his reveries by Ratcliff, ordered to oversee the execution, who says: “Dispatch, my lord; the duke would be at dinner: Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.” That is, though a condemned criminal was permitted time for confession or shrift, urgency might require that he be allowed no more than a few minutes for his shriving. Hence, thanks to the long list of crimes punishable by execution, this urgency was so common in the seventeenth century that “short shrift” became a synonym with “least possible delay.”
Finical smartness or ornamentation; furbishment; trimness . But whereas in the early nineteenth century, and many years before, the British officer, naval and military, demanded such finicky smartness—as if by the application of much spittle and elbow grease with a polishing agent—by the latter half of that century many naval officers, at least, regarded it as a wasteful affectation, having no bearing on efficiency . The first to voice that disapproval—and, incidentally, to record the term—was Admiral Lord Charles Beresford . In his Memoirs (1914), telling of his first independent command in 1873, he said that though at the outset he had a large working party holystone the decks until they were “as clean as a hound’s tooth,” from that day onward “I set myself steadily against brighl-work and spit-and-polish.” And he added, “Under the spit-and-polish system no doubt the men take a pride in keeping the ship bright, but such a process involves perpetual extra bother and worry, which are quite unnecessary.”
TO GO WEST
Although it has never been determined who, during World War I, was the first to speak of a fallen British soldier—and thereafter any member of the Allied military force who died in service—as having “gone west,” the choice of the expression does not impress me as having been out of the ordinary . Any classical scholar could have expressed it thus. The association of death with the west goes back at least to Roman times. In fact our word Occident, by which we mean “west,” the opposite of Orient, was derived from the Latin occjdere, meaning “to kill” or “to die.” That is, to the ancients, the sun “died” at the close of each day; the place where it died was occidens.
to say (or cry) “uncle”
To eat crow; throw in the towel or the sponge; cry quits; yield; submit. When I was a boy, one “hollered ‘cavy’” when he was licked, but we would have been the most astonished boys in the world had anyone told us we were talking Latin. That is, “cavy,” as I learned much later, is a corrupted contraction of peccavi, meaning, I have sinned, or, I am at fault, and this acknowledgment of guilt or fault was English usage from the sixteenth century onward. How it came into southern Ohio, I don’t know. And our present American expression, though arising only in this century, may also have had Latin birth. At least, when the Roman lad was in trouble, he cried, Patrue mi patruissime, “Uncle, my best of uncles!”
in hot water
In trouble; in a pretty kettle of fish; in a pretty how-de-do; behind the 8-ball; on the spot; up Salt Creek; domestically, in the dog house. When one considers that, during the Dark Ages especially, one of the favorite tests of guilt or innocence of a crime called for the dipping of the hand or arm in boiling water and picking up a stone or ring, it might be reasonable to suppose that our present expression owes its origin to that ordeal. But, no. Though the phrase undoubtedly arose from the extreme discomfort produced by scalding water, the colloquial sense so familiar to all began merely as eighteenth-century slang.
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