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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A place of mystery; utopia. The place was fictional, some mysterious region in Tibet conceived by the late English-born novelist, James Hilton, in Lost Horizon (1933), where people lived for hundreds of years and attempted to preserve the best achievements in art and ideals of the outside world despite its tensions. The concept gained widespread appeal . Thus when, in World War II, President F. D. Roosevelt smilingly told reporters that the flyers under General James Doolittle in the bombing of Tokyo had taken off from Shangri-la, it was immediately understood that the point of departure was not to be made public, was to remain as undisclosed as Hilton’s place of mystery.

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.



This was American college slang of the 1860’s. Whether or not it originated at Yale, it was so credited by Lyman H. Bagg who, in his Four Years at Yale (1871), wrote: “Dog, style, splurge. To put on dog is to make a flashy display to cut a swell”—and the latter expression in the definition could be defined, “to appear important.” The source of college slang even of today can be little more than guesswork, and to go back eighty-five years is necessarily conjectural. But it was then that the Blenheim and the King Charles spaniels were at the height of aristocratic popularity. Nothing could appear snootier, more high- toned than those dogs . Perhaps we owe this doggy phrase to them.

to throw a monkey wrench in the machinery.

To gum up the works; to place an obstacle or hindrance into a project or undertaking; to interfere, or cause confusion or disaster. Undoubtedly this literally described an act of sabotage when it was first used—possibly no more than fifty years ago, though it seems to me I have known it all my life. However, I may be mistaken, as the earliest literary use so far dug up, and the figurative use at that, was only twenty-five years ago. Garry Allighan, in his The Romance of the Talkies (1929), wrote: “The Talkies threw several kinds of monkey wrenches into the machinery of production.” The expression is undoubtedly American, as the British say “spanner wrench” for the same type of wrench.

Furthermore, though the source of the name of the implement is not certain, there is good reason to think it American, as well as the implement itself. The tool was known in 1858, and Dr. M. M. Mathews, writing in American Speech (Feb-ruary, 1953), refers to an item that appeared in the Boston Transcript sometime in the winter of 1932—33, which credits the invention to a man named Monk, in 1856, employed by Bemis & Call of Springfield, Massachusetts. The item adds that the wrench was first called Monk’s wrench, later jocularly turned into monkey wrench. But Dr. Mathews makes it clear that he has no confirmation of this tale.

to lead by the nose

To dominate; to have control over; to have the whip hand or under one’s thumb; to hold under submission. The expression is a common one in European languages, and both Romans and Greeks of old “had a word for it.” The allusion is obvious: From the time when beasts of burden were first domesticated, even as the oxen of the present   time, it was found that they could be controlled and led by chain or cord attached to a ring through the septum of the nose. In the Roman Circus, trainers of wild animals sometimes thus led beasts that they had captured around the arena. Through the Middle Ages and even to recent times, bears have been so displayed. For Biblical reference we have Isaiah XXXVII , 29: “Because thy rage against me, and thy tumult, is come up into mine ears, therefore will I put my hook in thy nose, and my bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the way by which thou earnest.”


In A Hog on ice I attributed this expression to a prize fighter of the late nineties who traveled under the ring-name of “Kid McCoy.” Another fighter of lesser skill, my story went, somewhat the worse for drink and unaware that McCoy was within hearing distance, declared in a barroom that he could lick any of the McCoys, any time and any place. When he picked himself up from the sawdust, after “The Kid” had delivered a haymaker, he amended his remarks then >by saying that he had meant any of the fighters who had adopted the popular name, “any but the real McCoy.”

Although that version has earmarks of veracity, or at least of near veracity, other widely different explanations of the origin of the phrase have been made. Thus, in 1946 a writer in the New Orleans Picayune, as quoted in A Dictionary of Americanisms (1951), says, “The term originally was applied to heroin brought in from the island of Macao off the coast of China. . . . It was not cut. Dope addicts found out the stuff from Macao was the rea l Macao.” The editor of that dictionary, however, Mitford M . Mathews, does not now accept that explanation, nor do I. Instead, according to his statement in American Speech, May, 1953, he regards with favor the solution proposed by Eric Partridge in From Sanskrit to Brazil, (1952). The corresponding British phrase, the real Mackay, Partridge says, dates from the 1880’s and was originally Scottish, applied first to men of excellent quality and then to first-rate things, especially whiskey. The latter, namely the product of A. & M. MacKay of Glasgow, was exported to America where, Partridge believes, Scottish settlers in Canada and the United States were plentiful enough to “keep both the whisky and the phrase very much alive,” though the phrase was later “transformed to the real McCoy, first under the impact of the hero worship that, in the late 1890’s accrued to boxer Kid McCoy and then under that which, in the early 1920’s, accrued, at least in New York State, to bootlegger Bill McCoy.” I quote this theory for what it is worth, though it seems far-fetched to me. It is a fact, nevertheless, that the term McCoy, in slang usage, did refer to whisky of good quality back in 1908, a date earlier than any literary evidence of the usage of the entire phrase.


All humbug; sham; stuff and nonsense; apparent but not real; imaginary. The age, even of the first part of this expression, is un-known. Grose, in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), was the first to give it mention, but it is likely that “all in my eye”—that is, all imaginary—was an earlier phrase for the same thing . The second part, “and Betty Martin,” has been the subject of much speculation . In commenting on the expression in The Doctor (1837), Robert Southey says, “Who was Betty Martin, and wherefore should she be so often mentioned in connection with my precious eye or yours?”

But Grose did not make proper nouns of the words. His listing of the phrase reads: “That’s my eye betty martin.” That gave some grounds for the explanation that appeared in some of the later editions of the apocryphal book, Joe Miller’s Jests. Therein it was said that a sailor, attracted by the music, wandered into a Catholic church. The Latin words puzzled him . But finally a phrase caught his ear , Ah mihi, beate Martin, (Ah! grant me , blessed St. Martin),   but to a comrade he later confessed that this he had understood to be, “All my eye and Betty Martin.” This explanation might pass muster, except for the fact, alas, that no such Latin prayer is to be found in the formulary of the Catholic Church.

Lucullian feast (or banquet)

A feast of inordinate magnificence; a terrific spread. L. Licinus Lucullus was a great Roman general in the early part of the first century B.C., and was at first famous for his victories over Mithridates. His victories brought him great wealth, and after his retirement he embarked upon an unprecedented scale of living and sensual indulgence. “A single supper in the hail,” according to Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology and Biography, “was said to cost the sum of 50,000 denarii.” Such prodigality, especially when frequently repeated, was notable even in a period marked by magnificence. Thus, though his military prowess is almost forgotten, his name still lives in the language through his reputation as a glutton.

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