Origins of Familiar Phrases

Updated on August 1, 2017
Source

On the Wagon

Current meaning: to abstain from drinking alcohol.

For several hundred years (ending in 1783) condemned prisoners in London were taken from Newgate Prison to their place of execution at Tyburn about two-and-a-half miles away. They were conveyed in horse-drawn carts.

Capitalpunishmentuk.org notes that, “Stops were made at two public houses along the way … where the condemned would be allowed an alcoholic drink.” Thus fortified to face the coming ordeal, they climbed aboard the wagon never to have another alcoholic drink in their lives that were now measured by minutes.

Some people claim the phrase comes from water wagons used to keep down dust on unpaved roads.
Some people claim the phrase comes from water wagons used to keep down dust on unpaved roads. | Source

Nope says the Salvation Army; the adage springs out of the temperance movement. “The phrase ‘on the wagon’ was coined by men and women receiving the services of The Salvation Army. Former National Commander Evangeline Booth - founder William Booth’s daughter - drove a hay wagon through the streets of New York to encourage alcoholics on board for a ride back to The Salvation Army. Hence, alcoholics in recovery were said to be ‘on the wagon.’ ”

Posh

Current meaning: stylish, wealthy.

In the days of the British Raj the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company enjoyed a lucrative trade of carrying passengers between Britain and India. Through the heat of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea the favoured cabins were on the shady side of the vessel. That meant the port side on the eastbound journey and the starboard side on the westward trip. So, Posh comes from the acronym derived from Port Out Starboard Home.

However, those debunkers of everything we know to be true at Snopes.com say the seafaring origin of posh is wrong. They confess to a murky history for the phrase but suggest it first appeared in print in 1830 and was a slang term for money. Or, it might have come into the English language from the Romany “posh-houri, meaning ‘half-pence.’ ” This is dated to the 17th century and the word slowly morphed into jargon for money.

The Oxford Dictionary offers both derivations of the phrase but doesn’t pick one and leaves us dangling with “Sadly, posh will just have to remain in the ‘origin unknown’ category.”


Johnny Carson Pranked by Phony Posh British Accents (apologies for video quality)

Wrong End of the Stick

Current meaning: Getting the worst of a bargain or misunderstanding the facts of an argument.

One origin for this phrase has to do with Roman toilets and bodily functions that we really don’t need to explore in detail, except to note that cleaning up was achieved by use of a stridulum; a sponge on a stick. The second person into the latrine might accidently grab the wrong ... Oh never mind.

Source

For a more palatable version we are indebted to historyzine.com. Back in the days of early printing a typesetter would pick individual letters from a type case and put them into a hand-held rack: “This rack was known as a composing stick and the letters must be loaded on to this stick the wrong way around so that when you drop the stick and all its letters face down onto the galley the letters will then be the right way around.” Apprentices would struggle with this for a while, putting the letters at the wrong end of the stick.

Another suggestion has to do with keeping the hired help in line. Walter Skeat was a noted Victorian philologist who tracked down word origins. In 1895 he wrote that “The right end of the stick was that held in the master’s hand, whilst the other was the wrong end, or (as our American cousins would say) the ‘business end.’ ”

Upper Crust

Current meaning: the aristocracy.

Tour any baronial mansion in the British Isles and you will likely hear the guide tell this story about where the term “Upper Crust” came from.

In the absence of thermometers, baking in the Middle Ages was a hit-or-miss affair. The oven was heated and the coals and ash racked out before the dough was placed on the hearth. The result was often a loaf with a blacked and burned bottom and a properly cooked top. The natural order of society dictated that the peasants got the bottom crust and the toffs the upper crust.

Source

Gary Martin of phrases.org says this explanation is “twaddle.” He says it relates to the outer layer of the Earth and/or to heads and hats.

“The ‘Earth’s surface’ and ‘head/hat’ meanings connect ‘upper crust’ with ‘top’ and there’s every reason to believe that our present application of the term to members of society is another use of that same metaphor. The connection between the ‘upper crust’ of society and the upper crust of loaves of bread is fanciful.”

Source

The Penny Dropped

Current meaning: A sudden understanding of a statement or theory

From Victorian times until 30 or so years ago, in order to access public toilets in Britain a penny had to be put into a locking mechanism. (In a clear case of gender discrimination, men could use urinals free of charges). When the penny dropped, the door opened, and the interior was revealed within in all its porcelain glory. The delicate “Spend a Penny” euphemism for going to the toilet comes from the same source.

And, here comes the challenge. The Oxford English Dictionary throws the great weight of its authority behind the penny-slot-machine theory.

Sometimes, the penny got caught in the mechanism requiring a few judicious nudges to the side of the cabinet to dislodge it. Eventually, the penny would drop and the toy delivered or the game begin.

Source

Living on Queer Street

Current meaning: Being short of money.

For once, there seems little disagreement about where this idiom came from. Carey Street in London was the site of the British bankruptcy court in the 19th century. The phrase is sometimes interchangeably quoted as “Living on Queer Street,” a location that was fictional. Modern usage suggests having a home in the middle of a gay community, but it does mean being in debt as well as experiencing something against one’s wishes. “Living on Queer Street” predates “Living on Carey Street.”

Bonus Factoid

Giving the cold shoulder.

Current meaning: Rudely disregarding someone.

Those pesky British tour guides are behind the false story that this was a way of telling unwanted guests it was time to leave. The offenders would be served a slice of cold meat from a shoulder of mutton, the toughest and least palatable part of the animal.

Source

Rubbish says The Word Detective. The expression comes from the pen of Sir Walter Scott and his 1816 novel The Antiquary: “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.” The maxim was soon showing up in books by Thackeray, Dickens, and others.

There are hundreds more familiar phrases and sayings whose origins might be surprising. Readers are invited to add their own derivations in the comments box below.

Sources

“Being Hanged at Tyburn.” Capitalpunishmentuk.org, undated.

“Did You Know?” Salvation Army, undated.

“The Etymology of Posh.” David Mikkelson, Snopes.com, undated.

“What is the Origin of the Word ‘Posh’?” Fiona McPherson, Oxford Dictionaries, February 3, 2012.

“Two Printing Terms.” Historyzine, undated.

“Wrong End of the Stick.” World Wide Words, undated.

“Upper Crust.” Gary Martin, phrases.org, undated.

“Cold Shoulder.” Evan Morris, The Word Detective, June 2, 2009.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)