A primer on expressions

It’s been only in my adult years that I’ve come across the term “Black Friday.” I’ve heard several explanations as to why it’s called that — some much more plausible than others.

Three of the most common explanations about the term have to do with weather conditions and pollution, the kind we find in big cities, compounded by rain, snow, sleet and sludge, as shoppers rush home with their treasures.

Not convinced? Then what about the opening of the holiday Christmas season, wherein those treasure-seeking shoppers turn their financial statuses red as merchants’ ledgers turn black?

And finally, some contend the term refers to members of the clergy, who wear black in anticipation of Easter Sunday.

I believe it’s safe to assume that each explanation gathers some support, but is there one, definitive answer that satisfies most?

I’m going through a volume of “Common Phrases and Where They Come From,” by John Murdock and Myron Korach. In introducing some of these phrases, the authors also tend to leave the answers up to the readers. If I can get to something plausible, I’ll record it here.

Isn’t it true that we often use terms we’ve heard others utter without being sure of the meanings? I struggled with the expression, “Can’t get a word in edge-wise” for many years, using it without understanding it, until someone explained the “edgewise” part of the term term refers to writing, not speaking, as if someone needs to invert the letters to a word to squeeze it in. Obviously, as the youngest in a family of five, I needed to learn (and respect) the “edgewise” connotation, especially around more informed siblings.

Did you ever “spill the beans”? Most people seem to agree on the concept of spilling the beans by inadvertently letting out a secret. That expression hit close to home way back in my youth. The first time I heard the term was when my mother and her sister were discussing their children’s wardrobe for the coming school year. That year, my mom, a competent seamstress planned to save a few bucks by altering my older brother’s clothes so I could wear them. Of course, the new batch of clothes would go to him.

The alterations were minor, as Severino and I were the same size before our teens. Well, Mom told Tia about her plan, possibly encouraging Tia to do the same with her own children. But in my presence Tia spilled the beans; the jig was up, she let the cat out of the bag, and I was let in on a secret that somehow didn’t surprise me at all.

According to my reference book, spilling the beans originated in Ancient Greece, in local elections. Candidates for honors would place their helmets in a row, and others would cast their votes by placing a bean into the helmet of the candidate they favored. After the voting, the candidates would pour out and count the beans, the top vote-getter being awarded a high honor.

Another term we hear a lot, especially during election cycles is “gerrymandering.” Most people know the term as the abusive practice of dividing up election districts to favor one political side or the other. The term obtained its name from a former governor of Massachusetts, Ebridge Gerry, who later became vice president under James Madison.

“Common Phrases” says that while governor, Gerry forced the state legislature, the majority of whose members belonged to his party, to subdivide the commonwealth of Massachusetts into election districts that helped ensure Republic domination in subsequent elections. A look at the revised map, the book’s authors say, made the state “look like a salamander,” or even a “Gerrymander.”

When we were in middle grades at Immaculate Conception School, ANY test we ever took caused our homeroom teacher, Sister Mary Pandemonium, to remark, “You passed by the skin of your teeth.” Well, we were aware that teeth don’t have skin, so what kind of passing did we perform on that test? Years later we learned that Job, a devout biblical character had coined the phrase.

In Job 29:20 we discover that since Job lived long before the invention of toothpaste, he must have confused tartar on his teeth with human skin.

And finally, when people choose to “give no quarter,” are they talking about holding back 25 cents? Actually, during the 30 Years War, the Spaniards and Dutch decided to end the wars they had waged against each other. Giving no quarter in wartime meant to withhold mercy. “To give quarter,” on the other hand, often led to the release of prisoners.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>