Curious Sayings



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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Sam Hill

After long and diligent search for some American of sufficient prominence in a bygone generation to justify the continued use of his name, even to the present time, in such sayings as “to run like Sam Hill, ” “What the Sam Hill,” “Who the Sam Hill,” and so on, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the editors of The Dictionary of Americanisms were right in calling the term “a euphemism for hell.” It may be, as Edwin V. Mitchell says in his Encyclopedia of American Politics (1946), that there was a Colonel Samuel Hill of Guilford, Connecticut, who continuously ran for and was elected to public office in both town and state, but this colonel, though perhaps locally prominent, does not turn up m any of the numerous biographical records I have consulted. Nor does Mr. Mitchell supply any dates. The expression itself had sufficiently widespread usage to extend into Schuyler County, New York, by 1839.


Absolutely right; right as rain; all hunkydory; all to the mustard.

Inasmuch as a trivet, a stand for supporting vessels in a fireplace, was always three-legged in former times, the housewife could set it anywhere upon her hearth, certain that a pot thereon would rest securely. The expression began to appear in literature early in

to be well heeled

In these days one is well heeled who has plenty of money, is well fixed or well-to -do, just the opposite of one who is down at the heels. Since the latter—down at the heels—alludes directly to the usual run-down condition of the shoeheels of one who is hard-pressed for money, it might be supposed that well heeled originally alluded to the reverse condition. But that is not the case. Originally, back in the ~eighteenth century, it was a game cock that was well heeled; that is, provided with a good “heel” or artificial spur before it faced an opponent in the pit. From that, in the United States, men began to “heel” themselves, to arm themselves with gun or pistol, before entering a zone in which trouble might be expected. If well armed, they were “well heeled,” from the troubled days in the West, and in the South following the War between the States. Hence, perhaps because most troubles can be alleviated by money, the expression soon took on its present financial aspect.


To make a great to-do over a trifle; to give something far greater importance than is justified. This is by no means a new idea. In fact, as dug up by Apperson, you will find that the witty Greek writer, Lucian (A.D. 125?-210?), used it in his “Ode to a Fly” “to make an elephant of a fly.” This has passed into a French proverb of identical meaning, faire d’une mouche un éléphant, as well as into the German aus einer Mucke einen Elejanten machen. Just why the Greek saying did not pass by direct translation into English is something to be guessed at.


About four hundred examples have been found for this peculiar metaphor, and some of the theories are themselves very peculiar. One is that “hatter” was just introduced merely to add an intensive force, that the individual spoken of was just more “mad “ than would be ordinarily expected under the circumstances. An other is that the original comparison was “mad as an adder,” under the assumption, I suppose, that adders are always insane.. But an explanation that I like was that given in an issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association: “It seems that mercury is used in the making of felt hats. Often the unfortunate hatter who would work for years with the mercury would be afflicted with a violent and uncontrollable twitching of his muscles as a result of its poisoning effects. His friends, not understanding the cause of his strange gyrations, concluded that he was mad.” Lewis Carroll’s character, “The Mad Hatter,” in Alice in Wonder-land (1865) was derived from the expression, but it was in use by Thomas Haliburton in 1837 in The Clockmaker, and because mercury was used in hat-making much earlier than that, it may have already been in the argot of hatters long previously.

by the great horn spoon

A mild oath, about as innocuous as “by the beard of the prophet,” not as strong as “great jumping Jehoshaphat.” Delvers into our language have been trying to figure out just what a “great horn spoon” was. So far, the search has been unsuccessful. Apparently it first occurred in a song printed in 1842 in which these lines occur: “He vow’d by the great horn spoon. . . . He’d give them a licking, and that pretty soon.” I have tried to find a copy of that song in order to determine the allusions, but have not yet discovered one.

Of course, horn spoons—spoons shaped from the curved horns of cattle—were in common use for many centuries before the comparatively recent introduction of cheap, durable metals. But why a horn spoon should suddenly become “great” is still conjectural.

A correspondent, Francis W. Palmer, to the October—December, 1949, issue of American Speech, tries to connect the great horn with the American “bighorn,” the Rocky Mountain sheep, which were called gros comes, “great horns,” by early French explorers. And he finds that Francis Parkman, in The California and Oregon Trail (1849), says the Indians made “ladles with long handles, capable of holding more than a quart, cut from such horns.” But to me it does not seem likely that the writer of the song mentioned above could have known that fact in 1842.


To be closely attentive; to be alert, alive and kicking, on one’s toes; to sit up and take notice. This has been popular American speech in a figurative sense for at least fifty years. In source, although applicable to any sport in which a ball is kept in motion—tennis, golf, billiards, bowls, polo—it was probably the game of football from which it was derived, from the urgent instructions of football from which it was derived, from the urgent instructions of college coaches.

call off the dogs

Cease some objectionable line of conduct, procedure, conversation, inquiry, or the like; break off an unprofitable or disagreeable course. The analogy is that of the chase, in which dogs following a wrong scent are called off.

to hoe one’s own row

To make one’s own way; to be independent, beholden to no one; to paddle one’s own canoe, peddle one’s own papers, blow one’s own nose. This was farm lingo, and is still applicable in a literal sense on any farm on which most labor is usually performed without benefit of machinery. Figurative application apparently dates to a time shortly after the death o f William Henry Harrison (April 4, 1841), a month after inauguration, when John Tyler succeeded him as president. Tyler, a former Democrat, had broken with his party and was elected with Harrison on the belief that he had fully adopted Whig principles . But within a few months it soon became evident that such was not the case. With the exception of Daniel Webster, Secretary of State, the entire cabinet resigned (September, 1841). This led a writer in The Knickerbocker , a New York monthly, to say, “Our American pretender must, to adopt an agricultural phrase, ‘hoe his own row,’ . . . without the aid of protectors or dependents.”

cross one’s heart

The most binding oath of childhood; solemn assurance of truthfulness, usually accompanied by motions of the right hand forming a cross over the general vicinity of the testator’s heart. Probably the gesture and its binding nature were originally based upon the familiar Catholic sign of the cross. In my own Protestant childhood in Ohio, and my wife says the same was the case in Massachusetts, the oath was often accompanied by the irreverent doggerel: “Cross my heart and hope to die, And hope the cat’ll spit in your eye.”


Old stuff; information, experience, condition, or the like that is familiar. A gutter interpretation of the origin, based on the pun “frequently felt,” does not strike me as remotely plausible. In my opinion the familiarity that is implied is rather that of long usage, something to which one is as accustomed as he is to a hat so long worn as to fit the head snugly. The metaphor is comparatively recent, and is rarely heard in the United States.

duck soup

Extremely easy; easy as rolling off a log; hence, a cinch. American slang of some twenty-five years’ standing. Probably derived from “a sitting duck,” namely one resting on the water, thus easily shot by a hunter; hence, figuratively, an easy mark, any person who lays himself wide open to ridicule or any form of attack. Thus, to some persons, the solution of a cross-word puzzle or the putting together of a jigsaw puzzle is duck soup.

to ride the gravy train

To acquire wealth; become prosperous; live on Easy Street; have a profitable business or an easy or well-paid position. Probably the expression actually arose in railroading lingo, in which a gravy run or a gravy train meant an easy run with good pay for the train crew, for gravy in popular speech, has long meant money easily earned or obtained. Though the earliest quotation in which gravy train appears is in Benjamin A. Botkin’s Lay My Burden Down (1945)—”They is on the gravy train and don’t know it, but they is headed straight for ‘struction and perdition”—even the full phrase, “to ride the gravy train,” was undoubtedly in use ten or twenty years earlier than that date, because it appears in all the above senses in The American Thesaurus of Slang which was published in 1942 and was under compilation during the preceding ten years or so.

in the doghouse

In a predicament; in a pickle; in a pretty how-de-do; in disgrace. This American slang of the early twentieth century came into being through analogy . Anyone who was considered, usually by a man’s wife, to be “going to the dogs” was, in theory at least, thought to be fit to associate only with the family dog, especially for his slumber; hence, figuratively, consigned to the dog kennel. The notion became enlarged. In due course  the husband began to realize that any time he was going to have domestic difficulty, especially in explaining an action, he would again be out of favor and again be relegated to the dog-house.

getting down to grass-roots

This is something that politicians or office-seekers repeatedly do, or do in their speechifying preceding an election . Grass-roots, apparently, are rediscovered perennially at those times. Actually, this homely American phrase means nothing more than getting down to the underlying principles or basic facts of a matter, and may be appropriately used at any time. Popularity preceding an election indicates that it is then that politicians strive to convince their hearers that they know all basic facts troubling the nation.

Mencken , in Supplement One: The American Language (1945) says in a footnote: “The late Dr. Frank H. Vizetelly told me in 1935 that he had been informed that grass-roots, in the verb-phrase, to get down to grass-roots, was in use in Ohio c. 1885, but he could never track down the printed record of it, and neither could I.” Well, I guess I’m the culprit. The phrase has been familiar to me, through my father’s use of it, ever since I was still wearing skirts in my Ohio infancy, and it is probable that, questioned by my then boss, “Dr. Viz,” I said that it had been used in Ohio for at least fifty years—and I still think I was right.

to ring a bell

To start a train of recollection; to strike a familiar chord; also, to appeal to one, to strike one’s fancy. Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang, says that this is from “the bell that rings when, at a shooting-gallery, a marksman hits the bull’s-eye.” I don’t agree with that. In my opinion, this expression, with its indefinite article, is of nostalgic birth, relating rather to memories or responses evoked by the church bell or the school bell. Had he specified the American expression, “to ring the bell,” always with the definite article, I could agree. That expression indicates success in one form or another; as, in a commercial transaction, to make a sale or obtain an order for goods; in law, to win a case; in games, to make a high score; in sports, to win; on the turf, to finish first; in gambling, to win a bet; in one’s studies, to pass an examination. These all spring from target shooting.

come (or in spite of) hell or high water

Let the consequences be whatever they may, however ill. I’d say that this is considerably older than the date—19 15—shown for it in A Dictionary of Americanisms. In fact, I heard it commonly employed in Colorado and Wyoming some years earlier, and it is the sort of expression that one would expect to find studded through Bret Harte’s Western stories. And, though the dictionaries describe “high water” as either being about the same thing as ordinary highest tide or ordinary highest flow of a stream, I’d translate the “high water” of this saying as referring specifically to the flash floods of water that roll down a canyon after a heavy storm above, sweeping everything before it. Certainly that’s the kind of destructive force worthy of comparison with “hell.”

sound (or all right ) on the goose

Back in 1854 Congress, admitting Kansa s and Nebraska as territories, weakly made the slave question a matter of local option. But abolitionists among the new settlers were at first in the minority. “How are you on ‘the goose?” became a customary question put to any newcomer in a community, especially in Kansas. It was never clear just how the term “goose” became involved in the question of slavery, but if the answer was “All sound (or all right) on the goose,” the newcomer was recognized to be in favor of slavery and was usually welcomed to the new community . But if the answer was “I’m a free-stater,” one who wanted Kansas to become a free state, he was likely to be looked upon with disfavor or threatened or told to move on. Though Kansas eventually entered the Union as a free state, this particular “goose~~ brought about not only the John Brown rebellion, but also the birth of the Republican Party, replacing the Whig Party, and ultimately led to the disastrous War between the States.

to fish or cut bait

To make a choice; specifically, to be obliged to take a definite stand, as upon a political issue. Just how this personal decision, admitting of no argument, wandered from matters piscatorial to matters political is one of the many questions which contribute interest to the life of a lexicographer, questions that often remain unanswered forever.

Cutting bait is one of the essential duties on board a deep-sea fishing vessel. Live fish, carried for the purpose, are cut into chunks which are then dropped overboard in quantity to attract the quarry when the vessel has reached a favorable location. The duty is onerous, but is assigned summarily to a member of the crew who, in the opinion of the captain, has merited it.

Though this American expression had undoubtedly long been part of the common argot of fisher folk, it suddenly appeared with political significance in the halls of Congress back in 1876, and from the mouth of a representative, not of a salt-water state, but of the inland state of Illinois , Joseph Gurney Cannon, then known as “the Hayseed Member from Illinois”—years later affectionately termed “Uncle Joe.” On August 5th of that year in a discussion of a monetary bill,~ Cannon pointed out that the bill was open to amendment, and then declared: “I will offer what is known as the Kelley silver bill as an additional section to the bill.” Then according to the Congressional Record, he added:

                    Now I want you gentlemen on the other side of the

                     House to “fish or cut bait.” This is the chance and

                     the only chance you will have under the rules this

                     session by which a bill can be passed by a majority vote,  

                    making the silver dollar a legal tender for all debts, public

                     and private. Gentlemen of the other side [the Democratic

                     side], do something positive for once during this session .


When Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve , French literary critic of the early nineteenth century, coined this term he thought of it as applicable to the aerie of a poet, a place where he could retire from the world, a retreat. The term occurs in his own poem, Pensées d’Aout (Thoughts of August), written in October, 1837, and dedicated to Francois Villemain. The third stanza, in which Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny, both poets, are mentioned, runs in part—                                                             Hugo, dur partisan

                              combattit sous l’armure,

                              Et tint haut sa bannière ou milieu du murmure:

                              Il Ia maintient encore; et Vigny, plus secret,

                              Comme en sa tour d’ivoire, avant midi, rentrait.

                                         [Hugo, strong partisan

                                                 . . fought in armor,

                                         And held high his banner in the midst of the tumult;

                                         He still holds it; and Vigny, more discreet,

                                         As if in his tower of ivory, retired before noon.]

Nevertheless, although Saint-Beuve may be credited as the originator of the thought, its intent is more pertinently expressed that poor source of supply was bound to be a weakling. Accordingly, the expression as I have always known it has meant to lose out, to get the short end of the stick, to have the worst of a deal. However, in the Ozarks, according to E. H. Criswell, in American Speech, December, 1953, a meaning given to the phrase in that region is “to be always late or behind,” though he offers no conjectural explanation. Typical American prudery affords no example of literary use.

over a barrel

When you have one “over a barrel” or put him over one you have him at your mercy, on the spot; you have him under your thumb—hook, line, and sinker. I surmise that the literal expression was an act of mercy, arising from the use of a barrel, until better means of resuscitation were developed, in the attempt to bring a drowned person back to life . In that method the person taken from the water was placed face down over the curving surface of a barrel, which was then gently rolled. Needless to add, the one so placed was at the mercy of the attendant.

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