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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To throw in the sponge (or towel)

To say uncle; to holler quits; to admit defeat; to surrender, submit, or yield. In today’s pugilistic encounters one is more likely to hear that the manager of one contestant throws in a towel, rather than a sponge, but the original occasion for the expression, which still stands in a non-physical sense, is explained in The Slang Dictionary. Though first published in 1860, the 1874 edition in my possession reads: “‘To throw up the sponge,’ to submit, to give over the struggle—from the practice of throwing up the sponge used to cleanse a combatant’s face at a prize-fight, as a signal that the side on which that particular sponge has been used has had enough—that the s one is no longer required..”

to crack the whip

To be in control; to have absolute dominance; to have under one’s thumb; to rule the roost. The Florida “cracker,” nowadays, tries to persuade himself and others that this nickname originated, not, as was actually the case, because his antecedents were notorious braggarts—.--i.e., cracked tall tales—but, as was not the case, because they were drovers, who cracked the whip over cattle or teams of oxen or mules.

Our present expression, however, did originate from the skill of drovers or also teamsters in handling the vicious bullwhacker whip of, especially, the nineteenth century. Before the days of the railroad, or to areas unreached by them, large wheeled wagons drawn by two, four, six or more pairs of horses, mules, or oxen carted freight over mountains and plains to ever-extending Western frontiers. The whip or bullwhacker of the driver, though short-handled, carried a long heavy thong which, properly wielded, could be snapped through the air to sound like a shot from a gun. Some drivers became so expert as, reputedly, to be able to kill a horsefly from the flanks of the leading horse without disturbing a hair of the animal, or to flick a piece of the hide from a lagging “critter.” All these were the ones who, originally, “cracked the whip.”

to jump Jim Crow

To dance with a peculiar limping step. Although, according to the Negro Year Book for 1925-26, the name “Jim Crow” was that of a Negro born in Richmond about 1800, later emancipated and, in England, acquiring “quite a fortune,” it is not probable that his name was in any way responsible for the application of that title to Negro discriminatory laws introduced, first, in Tennessee in 1875. The title came, rather, from a popular song, copyrighted in 1828 by Thomas D. Rice, which became part of a skit, The Rifle, written by Solon Robinson. The song and its accompanying dance, it is said, were based on the chance observance of an old Negro in Louisville, Kentucky, who shuffled as he sang, “Weel about, turn about, do jist so. ” In the skit, produced in Washington in 1835 and taken to London in 1836, where it became equally popular, Rice, in black - face, sang, as he danced:

                              First on de heel tap, den on de toe,

                              Ebery time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.

                              Wheel about and turn about and do jis so,

And ebery time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.

fatten (or sweeten) the kitty

No, in modern usage at least, this “kitty” is not a member of the cat family. The expression is a gambling term, chiefly poker nowadays, and today means to really increase the stakes, to add chips to an unopened jack pot. According to Hoyle, however, “kitty” is “the percentage taken out of the stakes in a game for expenses of any kind.” In this connection it refers to the “take” of the house, whether the main gambling be cards, pooi, racing, or other sport. The source is by no means real positive, but I suspect that someone with a fine sense of irony derived this “kitty” as the natural offspring of the “blind tiger” of faro fame.

to bring (or put) under the hammer

It is the auctioneer’s hammer that is meant, the small mallet used by him when tapping “once,” to indicate that the item on sale is about to be “going” to the latest bidder; “twice,” to give reluctant bidders another chance; “three times,” as notice that the item has been “sold” or has “gone” to that latest bidder. The expression in present form goes back about a century and a half. For about an equal period before that the common expression was “to pass under, or sell at, the spear.” This was translated from the Latin, sub hasta vendere, referring to the Roman custom of thrusting a spear into the ground at public auctions, the spear being a token of booty gained in battle and coming into the possession of the state.

to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel

TO MAKE A FUSS OVER TRIFLES BUT ACCEPT GREAT FAULTS WITHOUT COMPLAINT. This, as are many others, is a Biblical expression. It is found in Matthew xxiii, 24-26 : “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess . Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.” But the translators of the King James Bible of 1611 were already familiar with this figure of speech. It had appeared in Lectures upon Jonas by Bishop John King, first printed in 1594, reprinted in 1599, in which the bishop himself said, “They have verified the olde proverbe in strayning at gnats and swallowing downe camells.”

to win one’s spurs

To prove one’s ability; to perform some deed by which one first gains honor among one’s fellows . And there are a thousand ways by which it may be accomplished —a salesman by making his first sale, or his first important sale; a clergyman in delivering his first sermon; a doctor in attending his first patient; an author by the publication of his first story or book; an athlete by winning his first contest; or even, I suppose, by a yegg cracking his first safe. The allusion is to the young squire or princeling who, “when knighthood was in flower” in medieval days, had performed his first meritorious act or deed of valor by which he gained knighthood, by which his lord “dubbed” him a knight, tapping him with a sword lightly on the shoulder. After which accolade this lord or another presented the new member of the order with a pair of gilded spurs. Though early practices remain under discussion, this procedure, however, was apparently not adopted before the late fourteenth century. Thus we read in John Lydgate’s The Assembly of Gods (c. 1425), “These

xiiii knyghtes made Vyce that day; To wynne tbeyr spores they seyde they wold asay.”


This is something I’d like to see, or hear. Just how one can accomplish such a gymnastic lingual feat of lodging the tip or other portion of the tongue against the cheek and then uttering any distinguishable word is beyond my imagination . I can’t do it . The English humorist, Richard Barham, seems to have dreamed up the feat . In The Ingoldsby Legends (1845), in the story of the “Black Mousquetaire,” he has a Frenchman saying, “‘Superbe!—Magnifique!’ (With his tongue in his cheek.)” Perhaps that explains why I could never work up an interest in The Ingoldsby Legends. Other writers, however, have taken up the expression. Thus we have the expression still in daily use and may have forever.

hair and hide (horns and tallow)

The whole works; every part; the entirety. (Leaving nothing!) The first part, hair and hide, has long been used in the same sense. In fact, five hundred years ago, in the metrical Life of St. Cuthbert, we find: “pai were destroyed, bath hare and hyde.” The second part, horns and tallow, is, I suspect, a fairly recent American additive probably of the wild-woolly-West school of literature to impress youthful readers. When the earlier part is reversed and used negatively, as in “I have seen neither hide nor hair of the cat since yesterday,” the sense is that the speaker hasn’t seen any part of the animal, and this usage dates back apparently little more than a century.

hold your horses

Don’t be in too grea t a hurry; take it easy; watch your step; keep your shirt on; be patient; control your temper. “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date! This homely admonition traces back to the American county fair of old, to the races which, among the menfolk especially, were the main features of the day. The harness races were especially difficult to get started, for the horses, sensing the tautness of inexperienced eager drivers, were constantly breaking from the line and had to be called back . Figurative transfer to human restiveness and its restraint was but a step. As early as 1844 we find in the old New Orleans Picayune, “Oh, hold your horses, Squire. There’s no use gettin’ riled, no how.”

itching palm

A wistful desire for money; a hankering for gain; avariciousness; readiness to receive a bribe. Money, money , money! Other bodily parts were metaphorically said to itch, even before Shakespeare’s time—such as an “itching tongue,” a craving to repeat gossip; an “itching ear,” a craving to hear something new; an “itching foot,” a craving for travel. But Shakespeare gave us the “itching palm.” It is to be found in Julius Caesar (1601), Act IV, scene 3. Cassius has come to the tent of Brutus to voice certain complaints, especially to criticize Brutus for condemning a friend of Cassius for taking bribes. In reply Brutus says: “Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourselfe Are much condemn’d to haue an itching Palme.”

to stick (or put) in one’s oar (in another’s boat)

To enter without invitation into the affairs of another; to interfere or meddle; to butt into a conversation or the like; to add one’s two-cents’ worth. There’s no telling where this originated. Its first appearance in English is in the Pophthegmes, That is to Saie, Prom pte Saiynges (1542), translated by Nicolas Udall from the

collection, in Latin, of adages garnered by Erasmus, published in 1500 . In Udall’s translation it is thus given:

                              Whatsoeuer came in his foolyshe brain,

                              Out it should, wer it neuer so vain.

                              In eche mans bole would he haue an ore,

                              But no woorde, to good purpose, lesse or more.

Along in the eighteenth century the “boat” phrase was occasionally dropped, and we in America now use “stick” more frequently than either “put” or “have.”

to get it in the neck

TO GET IT WHERE THE CHICKEN GOT THE AX; to be defeated or punished ; to be on the carpet; also, to be deceived. The first definition, in its literal sense, adequately explains the origin of this American slang, and the first definition used figuratively is fully synonymous with each of the other meanings. The expression is at least seventy (70) years old, first reported in the Louisville (Kentucky) Courier, issue of January 20, 1887. The report dealt with the play, The James Boys, at the New Buckingham Theatre the previous Saturday evening. The galleries were filled with bootblacks, newsboys, and small boys generally. As half a dozen dark-visaged and heavily armed rogues crept on the darkened stage and gathered around a barrel marked in large white letters “Powder,” one small urchin in a most excited stage whisper said, according to the reporter, “Dem dubs is goin’ to get it in de neck in a minit.”


“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” That is the sixth verse of the seventh chapter of Matthew. Of the passage John Wyclif wrote in 1380:       “pus [Thus] comaundeth crist bat men schullen not yeve [give] holy Jingis to hondis [hounds] putten precious perles to hoggis.” That is, grandmother, don’t bequeath the most revered among your treasured antiques to a daughter or daughter-in-law who cares only for modernistic decor, and, granddad, no matter how generous your instincts, you are merely casting pearls before swine in giving your six-year-old grandson a set of ivory chessmen at Christmas, rather than lead Indians.

to keep the pot boiling

To provide for one’s living; to keep at gainful employment that will produce income; also, to keep interest from flagging; to keep the ball rolling. In former times when gentlemen and ladies were not supposed to work, to sell their time and effort for wages, some still found it necessary to produce some sort of salable commodity in order to continue to eat. It was genteel, not vulgar labor, to write or to paint, and many a man in the early nineteenth century especially (and from then to the present time) kept food in his domestic pot and a fire under it, through the judicious exercise of these talents and the generosity of a benefactor. Thus we find William Combe , himself a “potboiler” through long practice, in The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1812), saying in his customary doggerel: “No fav’vring patrons have I got, But just enough to boil the pot.”


Something of a highly suspicious nature; a nigger in the woodpile; some-thing likely to b e corrupt. We have it from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act I, scene 4. Hamlet has been summoned by the ghost of his father, the murdered king of Denmark, into a conversation apart from his friends Horatio and Marcellus. His friends urge him not to go alone, for fear of injury, but Hamlet insists and will not be denied, saying , “Unhand me, gentlemen , By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me, ” and departs with the ghost. Marcellus then says “Let’s follow; ‘tis not fit thus to obey him.” Horatio replies, “Have after. To what issue will this come?” To which Marcellus responds, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

to crash the gate

If Willy Smith, in fitting attire, enters the portals of Madame Astorbilt’s house or grounds, to which he has not been invited, in order to mingle with her party guests, he has “crashed the gate” to do so. Or if little red-haired Sammy Jones finds a way to sneak past a ticket-taker at the Polo Grounds or Madison Square Garden, he too “crashes the gate.” Neither one has literally crashed anything—other than social or legal convention—but such an entrance, uninvited or non-paid, has been popular American designation since, approximately, the end of World War I. No one knows and there is no clue to the person who became the first gate-crasher.

to get in one’s hair

To have someone or something persistently annoy one; to become greatly irked. I doubt that this American expression was of Western origin, though its first reported appearance was in the Oregon Statesman in 1851: “I shall depend on your honor . . . that you won’t tell on me, cause if you did, I should have Hetty Gawkins in my hair in no time.” But there had been towns and villages in that territory for almost forty years by that time, so it is of course possible that the expression signified some annoying Oregonian factor that actually did get in one’s hair. What that annoyance may have been, we are not told. Nevertheless since body lice were then regarded as a more or less necessary evil, it is certainly within the realms of probability that these were the pests of the early reference, literally irritating the scalp.

to cry for the moon

Breathes there a man with soul so dead” that he has never done this!

 Any such would be utterly lacking in either desire or ambition, one who goes through life just a-settin’ like a Stoughton bottle. That is, we all, at some time, strive for the impossible or the unattainable—and, perhaps, the disappointment over our inability to answer the siren’s call or to catch up with the will-o’-the-wisp inclines us to follow the lover in Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847): “I babbled for you, as babies for the moon.” It was Charles Dickens, however, who, in Bleak House (1852), was the first to put on record the present saying, even though, undoubtedly, the babies of Adam and Eve and all babies since must have reached out their plump little hands and demanded, in no uncertain tones, that the pretty yellow ball in the sky be placed therein. Dickens, describing in Chapter VI the actions of Mr. Skimpole, had him say of himself, “Give him the papers, conversation, music, mutton, coffee, landscape, fruit in the season, a few sheets of Bristol-board, and a little claret, and he asked no more. He was a mere child in the world, but he didn’t cry for the moon.”


To approach or treat a delicate subject without causing offense; to risk imprudence or indelicacy in language. The author, in fact, has skated over thin ice several times in this book in his attempt to explain one or another irreligious or indecent expression tactfully, without giving occasion to any reader to drop the book in the fire. The allusion is to the sport indulged in by daredevil boys and venturesome young men, in winter, in skating rapidly over newly formed ice on lakes or streams, ice so thin that it would not bear his weight if the skater stopped or slowed down; hence, the risk of being plunged into icy water. In my own youth, as in that of my sons in New England, the sport was called “tickledy-bendo,” partly from the bending ice as the skater skimmed its surface. The expression also is used to mean to undertake a venturesome enterprise, especially one relying upon consummate skill or great luck.

to ride the goat

To be initiated or inducted into an organization, especially into a secret society. In all probability, although no facts are ever likely to be disclosed, this expression actually did arise from the practice in some college Greek-letter fraternity of introducing a goat into the hazing of prospective candidates for membership . But the earliest record of the phrase occurs in Peck’s Bad Boy and His Pa (1883), by George Wilbur Peck. In Chapter XIX, “His Pa Is ‘Nishiated,” the bad boy and his chum train a goat to butt a bock-beer sign, borrowed from a neighboring saloon, and ask “Pa” if he would like to be “ ‘nishiated” into their lodge and take “the bumper degree.” When “Pa” agrees, he is told to “come up pretty soon and give three distinct raps, and when we asked him who come there must say ‘ A pilgrim who wants to join your ancient order and ride the goat.’ “ The goat, as the bad boy says, is “loaded for bear, and when “Pa” repeats the order, “Bring forth the Royal Bumper and let him Bump,” the goat, seeing the bock-beer sign pinned to “Pa’s” back side, lets him have it with the best “bump” of which he is capable.

to lead one up (or down) the garden (or garden path)

This expression, in frequent use by English writers, has not yet gained much currency in the United States . It is relatively new, dating probably no further back than around the end of World War I. When I wrote to Sir St. Vincent Troubridge, whom I have quoted variously elsewhere, to inquire whether he could suggest a possible origin, I advanced the theory that seduction might have been the aim in the “leading.” He did not agree with that view, though he was not able to offer anything more plausible. Nevertheless, to quote th e Supplement (1933) to The Oxford English Dictionary, the saying means “to lead on, entice, mislead,” and the earliest printed quotation that is cited is from Ethel Mannin’s Sounding Brass (1926): “They’re cheats, that’s wot women are! Lead you up the garden and then go snivellin’ around ‘cos wot’s natcheral ‘as ‘appened to ‘em.” If that doesn’t imply seduction, then what does it imply? Be that as it may, current usage rarely, if ever, carries other meaning than to bamboozle, to hoax, to blarney, to pull one’s leg, to deceive.

other fish to fry

The French idea is in a bien d’autres chiens a jouetter, literally, “he has many other dogs to whip.” The Germans, with no frills, give the actual eaning—andere Dinge zu tan haben, “to have other things to do,” as do the Italians with altro pel capo . The Spaniards are equally direct though your translated version of Don Quixote may give you a different idea. Thus, in the Motteux translation (1712), part II, chapter XXXV , Merlin tells the noble Don that the only way by which “the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso” may be disenchanted is that Sancho—

                              thy good Squire,

                              On his bare brawny buttocks should bestow

                              Three thousand Lashes, and eke three hundred more,

                              Each to afflict, and sting, and gall him sore.”

But Sancho, quite naturally, objects to being the recipient of such indignity; the disenchantment of the fair Duchess is of no immediate concern to him; hence, “‘I say, as I have said before,’ quoth Sancho; ‘as for the flogging, I pronounce it flat and plain.’ ‘Renounce, you mean,’ said the Duke. ‘Good your Lordship,’ quoth Sancho, ‘this is no Time for me to mind Niceties, and spelling of Letters: I have other Fish to fry. . .”

Cervantes actually wrote, otras cosas en que pensar, “other things on which to think,” but Motteux, anxious to show off his acquaintance with English idiom, adopted the phrase already well known. Just how old the “fish” version may be is not known. The first appearance in print that has yet been found is in the Memoirs (1660) of the prolific writer John Evelyn . Undoubtedly, however,

it had long been familiar to his readers.


Too beset by petty things to appreciate greatness or grandeur; too wrapped up in details to gain a view of the whole. In America we are likely to use the plural, “woods,” or possibly to substitute “forest,” but “wood” is the old form and is preferable. Yes, the saying is at least five hundred years old, and probably a century or two could be added to that, for it must have long been in use to have been recorded in 1546 in John Heywood’s A Dialogue Conteynyng the Nomber in Efject of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue . He wrote: “Plentie is no deinte, ye see not your owne ease. I see, ye can not see the wood for trees.” And a few years later, in 1583, Brian Melbancke, in Philotimus: the Warre Betwixt Nature and Fortune, wrote: “Thou canst not or wilt not see wood for trees.” The saying has cropped up repeatedly from then to the present, becoming, in fact, more frequent with the passing years.

son of a gun

Nowadays this is likely to be a respectable or nice-Nelly substitute for an epithet of the when-you-call-me-that-Smile variety, a male offspring of the female of the canine family. But it is also used as a term of affectionate regard, as between pals. In general, however, it is the opposite extreme, accompanied usually by a derogatory adjective and used as a term of contempt. It has been in the language for at least two and a half centuries, and if one is willing to accept the story of its origin given by Admiral William Henry Smyth of the British navy in The Sailor’s Word-Book, written about 1865, here it is: An epithet conveying contempt in a slight degree, and originally applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands to sea; one admiral declared he literally was thus cradled, under the breast of a gun-carriage.

It would have been my guess that this term for the popular American comestible came into circulation, along with the item itself, during the great Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. But the New York Herald Tribune, in an editorial, “The Hot-Dog Mystery,” June 2, 1931, was not able to carry the date earlier than 1900. It hardly seems necessary to explain that the name itself is applied to a frankfurter, a highly seasoned sausage of mixed meats, usually grilled and placed in a split roll, the name being suggested by the one-time notion that the sausage was made of dog meat . The Herald Tribune credited the invention of the concoction to one , Harry M . Stevens, caterer at the New York Polo Grounds, who at that time heated not only the frankfurter but also the roll. However, Stevens, as reported by the Herald Tribune in his obituary, May 4, 1934, credited the name to the late T. A. Dorgan (known as “Tad,” from his initials), a sports cartoonist, though unable to recall the date . In more recent days “hot dog” has be-

come an ejaculation expressive of surprise or approval.

to give one the gate

This might appear to be a descendant of a saying of the fifteenth century, “to grant one the gate,” as in The Knightly Tale of Galagras and Gawane : “The king grantit the gait to schir Gawane, And prayt to the grete Dod to grant him his grace.” That is to say, the king granted Sir Gawane permission to leave, to pass through the gate and to take to the road. But that expression died many years ago. Ours is of twentieth-century birth and is reasonably literal in that it means to show one the door; hence, to give one his walking papers, or, that is, to dismiss a person, give him a walkout powder, give him the air, or, in baseball terminology, to send a player to the showers, retire him from the game.


By fair means or foul; in one way or another. As stated in A Hog on Ice, this expression is so old, dating back at least to the fourteenth century, that, though many derivations have been advanced, no certainty of origin has been obtained. This statement brought a letter from Admiral Gerald J. FitzGerald of Chicago, which I am privileged to quote, and to which was attached a clipping: “Admiral Gerald I. FitzGerald—of the Knight of Gun branch, of the Lord (Earl) of Desmond branch, of the House of Geraldine—can trace his pedigree back to Adam and Eve.”

In regard to “by hook o r by crook,” Admiral FitzGerald wrote: “The origin has an affinity with my family . . . When my ancestors, the FitzGerald barons, were invading Ireland around A.D. 1169-1170, it was decided to establish a beachhead at Waterford because of its excellent harbor. As the invading squadrons were just cruising across the broad expanse of water, they saw on the Emerald Isle’s left shore a lofty tower, and on the right a magnificent church. A spy was asked what these places were and he responded, ‘On the left, the Tower of Hook, and on the right, the Church of Crook.’ ‘Then,’ said the head lord and marshal, ‘we’ll invade and take this great Kingdom of Ireland by Hook or Crook.’”

This account has at least the novelty of differing from all the others that I have seen, and history does record the fact that Gerald, ancestor of the FitzGerald family, was among the Anglo-Norman leaders authorized by Henry II of England to invade Ireland.

a leap in the dark

Any undertaking the outcome of which cannot be foreseen; a venture of uncertain consequence. At least, such are the modem interpretations, and we apply the metaphor to just about anything we have under contemplation of which the consequences cannot be determined. But the earliest usage of which we have record gives the phrase a more sinister interpretation. That is, in Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Provok’d Wife (1697), we find (Act V, scene 6), the words of one dying, “So, now, I am in for Hobbes voyage, a great leap in the dark.” The allusion being that the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1679, on his deathbed was alleged to have said, “Now I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark.”

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