Making Sense of Common Phrases
As a court reporting firm owner, my life and work are steeped in a passion for words and language. This was notable at a wedding I recently attended in Hilton Head. As a group of us were enjoying the beach and sharing stories, the comment was made, “Cut to the chase.” This led to a lively discussion regarding the origin of this and other common phrases (colloquialisms) we all use in everyday conversations but rarely stop to think, What does that really mean?
Phrases like “Cut to the chase” are formally called colloquialisms. Dictionary.com defines colloquialism as “a word or phrase appropriate to conversation and other informal situations.”
I thought the topic would be fun fodder for the Donovan Reporting blog. You’ve likely seen or heard some of these from time to time. Have you ever wondered where they originated?
|Phrase||Current Meaning According to The Phrase Finder||Historical Context According to The Phrase Finder|
|Cut to the chase||Get to the point - leaving out unnecessary preamble.||This phrase originated in the US film industry. Many early silent films ended in chase sequences preceded by obligatory romantic storylines. Whenever the director perceived the audience may become bored with the sappy romantic scene, he would firmly direct, "Cut to the chase!"|
|The third degree||Close interrogation.||In Masonic lodges there are three degrees of membership. The first is called Entered Apprentice; the second Fellowcraft; and the third is Master Mason. When a candidate receives the third degree in a Masonic lodge, he is subjected to some activities that involve an interrogation and it is more physically challenging than the first two degrees. It is this interrogation that was the source of the name of the US police force's interrogation technique.|
|White elephant||A burdensome possession; creating more trouble than it is worth.||White (albino) elephants were regarded as holy in ancient times in Thailand and other Asian countries. Keeping a white elephant was a very expensive undertaking since the owner had to provide the elephant with special food and provide access for people who wanted to worship it. If a Thai King became dissatisfied with a subordinate, he would give him a white elephant. The gift would, in most cases, ruin the recipient.|
|Hair of the dog||A small measure of drink, intended to cure a hangover.||The fuller version of this phrase, that is, "the hair of the dog that bit me," gives a clue to the source of the name of this supposed hangover cure. That derivation is from the medieval belief that, when someone was bitten by a rabid dog, a cure could be made by applying the same dog's hair to the infected wound. How many people managed to get bitten again when trying to approach the aforesaid dog to acquire the hair to achieve this completely useless remedy isn't known.|
|Resting on your laurels||You get lazy or complacent about what you could achieve because you're too busy basking in the memories of former glories.||The laurels that are being referred to when someone is said to "rest on his laurels" are the aromatically scented Laurus Nobilis trees or, more specifically, their leaves. The origins of the phrase lie in ancient Greece, where laurel wreaths were symbols of victory and status.|
|Basket case||Indicates a state of helplessness or someone who is insane.||The term originated in WW1, indicating a soldier missing both his arms and legs who needed to be literally carried around in a "basket."|
|Fly by the seat of your pants||To decide a course of action as you go along, using your own perceptions rather than a predetermined plan.||This is early aviation parlance. Aircraft initially had few navigation aids, and flying was accomplished by means of the pilot's judgment. The term emerged in the 1930s and was first widely used in reports of Douglas Corrigan's flight from the USA to Ireland in 1938, according to Wikipedia.|
I’m sure you can think of many other colloquialisms, such as:
• Turn a blind eye
• Paint the town red
• Hold a candle to
• Apple of my eye
• Beat around the bush
• Fly off the handle
At Donovan Reporting, we take capturing the record very seriously. And, as phrases are tossed about in depositions, the word geek in us makes a mental note along the way.
Perhaps the next time you are having a casual conversation and notice such a phrase, it might be a fun exercise to try to imagine the true meaning and origin. A quick Google search will reveal the answers. You might be surprised! I know my fellow wedding attendees and I learned a lot and had fun sharing our own versions of what these common phrases must mean.