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Morgan Dynamic Phonics: Word or Phrase Origin of the Week, 2007-2009

December 2009. maroon; marooned -- Black people who lived in the remote forests of Dutch Guiana and the West Indies were often runaway slaves. They were called maroons, French for “runaway black slaves.”

December 2009. Merchant -- The Roman god Mercury, for whom Mercury is named, was the god of business. From his name we get: merchant, merchandise, commerce and commercial.

December 2009. mint -- gets its name from the Greek nymph Minthe, who was changed into the herb by Proserpine, the jealous wife of Pluto, god of the underworld. Wild mint has been chewed from earliest times and is thought to be an aphrodisiac. Aristotle banned the chewing of mint by Alexander the Great’s soldiers because he felt it stimulated them sexually and sapped their desire to fight.

December 2009. mosaic -- comes to us via French and Latin from the Greek word for “a Muse.” Mosaic work was associated with the Muses of ancient Greece.

November 2009. paradise -- The large parks and pleasure gardens of the Persian kings were the first paradises. Such gardens were known more than 3,000 years ago, as was the word for them.

November 2009. relay -- Hunting parties used to keep packs of fresh hounds along the hunting trail to relieve the tired ones -- as is done in a modern relay race. The word comes from an old French word meaning ‘to loose the hounds.’

November 2009. romaine lettuce -- The French believe that this lettuce was first cultivated by the Romans -- hence the name romain.

November 2009. to rub out -- meaning to kill someone, comes from the Plains Indian sign language, which expresses ‘to kill’ with a rubbing motion.

October 2009. season -- Latin -- referred to the time of sowing. It existed for a long time only referring to Spring.

October 2009. steak -- Old English word referred to the way the meat was cooked -- on a thin stake. Note: during the Great Vowel Shift in English -- all of the ‘ea’ words pronounced with a long “a,” changed their sound to the long ‘e’ sound, with the exception of: steak, great, and break.

October 2009. strung-out -- originally was a term used for ‘out of tune musical instruments.’

October 2009. thinking cap -- 17th century -- Square-cut, tight-fitting caps were worn by scholars, clergymen and jurists -- who were considered intelligent. The common man thought the caps helped these individuals think. English judges once put on their caps before passing sentences in all cases.

September 2009. thyroid -- Greek -- the thyroid cartilage, or Adam’s Apple, was named for its resemblance to the ‘battle shields’ of Greek warriors in the time of Homer.

September 2009. toe the line -- Before the Queensberry rules were enforced, English prizefights were long and brutal. The two bare-fisted fighters placed their toes on a line that officials marked in the center of the ring and punched each other until one of them fell, thus ending the round. The expression was also used in track events, where runners started a race with their foot on the starting line.

September 2009. train -- originally the railway carriages pulled along by the engine. The word comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to drag’ in lesson 6.

September 2009. uncouth -- 14th century -- Old English -- originally meant ‘unknown or unfamiliar.’ The dislike and distrust of the unfamiliar, of strangers, of foreigners, is probably responsible for the change in meaning over time.

August 2009. upshot -- 16th century -- An upshot meant the last shot in an archery contest. It was the shot that often determined the outcome of the contest.

August 2009. upstage -- Theatrically upstage refers to the back of the stage, while downstage is the part closest to the audience. An actor can overshadow another actor by moving upstage, and thus forcing the other actor to play toward him with his back to the audience.

August 2009. whaling -- Two centuries ago a whaling, ‘a terrible beating,’ was performed with a whalebone whip. Riding whips were made of whalebone and used for more than beating just horses.

August 2009. when the shit hits the fan -- The saying may derive from an old story in the 1930s. A man in a bar hurried upstairs to go to the bathroom. Since he could not find a toilet, he used a hole he found in the floor. When he came back downstairs, the bar was almost empty. When he asked, the bartender replied: “Where were you when the shit hit the fan?”

July 2009. whore -- in 12th century England, it meant ‘adulterer,’ from a word in Norse and Gothic.

July 2009. wing it -- a theatrical term from the 19th century. When an actor could not remember his lines, he depended of prompters in the wings to get him through the performance.

July 2009. you can run but you can’t hide -- coined by boxer Joe Louis when he was asked how he would deal with the fancy footwork of his next opponent, Billy Conn in 1946.

July 2009. zombie -- was originally the snake god worshipped (python god) in West Indian voodoo ceremonies in West Africa. Dead people, it was said, were brought back to life in these ceremonies. Such people would shuffle along in states of being half dead and half alive, and were called zombies.

June 2009. with flying colors - a late 1600s phrase alluding to ships sailing with their flags high to indicated victory.

June 2009. with a grain of salt - Pliny wrote about Pompey's supposed discovery of a poison antidote, and wrote the Latin "cum grano salis," meaning "to be taken with a grain of salt."

June 2009. wing it - from the theatre, this phrase refers to an actor who has suddenly been called on as a replacement, and who is studying the part in the wings on either side of the stage.

June 2009. wet blanket - refers to using a wet blanket to smother a fire.

June 2009. wet behind the ears - a reference to newborn colts or calves, which have an indentation behind the ears that is the last spot on them to dry.

June 2009. wear one's heart on one's sleeve - a reference to the old practice of a woman tying her favor to a lover's sleeve. The phrase was in use as early as Shakespeare's time, since he uses it in Othello.

May 2009. wash one's hands of - from the Bible, in Matthew 27:24; Pontius Pilate washes his hands before he has Jesus put to death, and says he is innocent of the blood.

May 2009. warm the cockles of one's heart - in the later part of the 1600s, a Latin phrase for the heart's ventricles (cochleae cordis) was corrupted into "cockles."

May 2009. up the river - originally from Sing Sing, since the prison was thirty miles up the Hudson River from New York City. In the 1900s, it came to refer to any prison.

May 2009. upper hand - figuratively used since the 1400s, this refers to a very old game where a player grips a stick with one hand at the bottom, and each takes turns placing their hand above the last. The person who can grip the top of the stick wins.

May 2009. under one's belt - reference to eating and digesting food, metaphorically applied to experiences.

April 2009. trial by fire - an allusion to medieval tests of a person's guilt by testing if they could endure such trials as walking barefoot through a fire.

April 2009. top banana - in the 1900s in show business, the leading comedian was referred to as "top banana." This may be a reference to burlesque comedian Frank Lebowitz, who was known for using bananas in his act.

April 2009. throw one's hat in the ring - in boxing, throwing a hat into the boxing ring used to indicate a challenge.

April 2009. straw vote or straw poll - from using a straw to show the direction the wind is blowing. In the case of this idiom, it refers to the wind of public opinion.

April 2009. spick and span - "spick" used to refer to a spike or nail, and "span" was a wooden chip. Both nouns, which are no longer in use, were from ship lingo in the 1500s; "spick and span" refers primarily to all the nails and wood chips on a ship being brand new.

March 2009. snug as a bug in a rug - this expression may come from moth larva feeding off of rolled carpets.

March 2009. run the gamut - from Guido d'Arezzo's medieval music scale. On the scale, "gamma" was the lowest note, and "ut" was the highest, so the two became contracted to become "gamut."

March 2009. run of the mill - this phrase comes from the practice where fabrics would come right from the mill with no attention to quality.

March 2009. root for - possibly from "rout," a British word used for cattle meaning "bellow."

February 2009. ride roughshod over - refers to a practice where battle horses were fitted with horseshoes armed with projecting nails in order to improve traction and to further damage fallen enemies.

February 2009. rest on one's laurels - an allusion from the late 1800s to the ancient award of a crown of laurels.

February 2009. rank and file - a military expression first recorded in 1860, referring to "rank," in which soldiers stood side by side, and "file" where soldiers stood behind one another in a line.

February 2009. quantum leap - from a term in physics in the 1900s, "quantum jump," which is a sudden change in an atom from one energy state to another.

January 2009. push the envelope - a term from aviation where the "envelope" means the shape on a graph of a plane's performance limits; there is an "envelope" on the graph in which the plane and pilot are safe.

January 2009. play the field - from British horse racing, in regards to betting on every horse except for the favorite in a race.

January 2009. pull one's weight - refers to rowing, where everyone on a boat must pull an oar with at least enough strength to move themselves.

January 2009. pie in the sky - from a 1911 Workers of the World union song. The lyrics say: "work and pray, live on hay, you'll get pie in the sky when you die."

December 2008. pass the buck - from a practice in poker in the mid-1800s, where a piece of buckshot was passed to indicate that a player was the next dealer. It did not take on its present meaning of shifting blame until around 1900.

December 2008. over a barrel - is said to allude to a practice of placing a drowning victim in a barrel and rolling it back and forth in the hopes of emptying the lungs of water and reviving the victim.

December 2008. off the top of one's head - referring to saying something without using the inside of one's head.

December 2008. off the cuff - may mean a practice where a public speaker would make notes on the cuff of their shirtsleeve.

November 2008. nurse a drink - to drink slowly; this term is from holding a glass with great care in the same way that one might hold a child.

November 2008. not enough room to swing a cat - from 1771, this may refer to a cat-o'-nine-tails, sometimes just called a "cat," a British military whip with nine attached lashes.

November 2008. nary a - a 1700s contraction of "never a" that is still in common use.

November 2008. mover and shaker - this duo of terms referred to God, and the idea that God shaped all events, but is now only used for human beings.

October 2008. narrow escape - "narrow" in this term means hardly adequate.

October 2008. make a killing - a phrase that originally meant a successful hunt.

October 2008. make a pitch for - originally meant specific sales speak, that was thrown, or "pitched" to a listener.

October 2008. make a stink - an idiomatic way of comparing a public disturbance to a bad smell.

September 2008. man about town - a term evoking sophistication of a town rather than a rural setting, first recorded in 1734.

September 2008. matter of fact - originally legal language that separated the facts in a given case from the related "matters of law" in the case. First recorded in 1581.

September 2008. meal ticket - an allusion to an old practice of giving out tickets that were good for one meal.

September 2008. make a bundle - refers to a pre-1900s roll of banknotes, called a "bundle." A variation of this, "make a pile," refers to a heap of money.

August 2008. as the crow flies - this word is based on the knowledge that crows, being very intelligent, do not divert in flight when seeking food but fly straight to the food source.

August 2008. basket case - originating from World War I. If a soldier had lost his arms and legs in combat he would have to be carried in a basket; thus, too impaired to function.

July 2008. beat a retreat (beat a hasty retreat) - from the war practice of the 1300s when the sounding of drums signaled troops into retreat.

July 2008. black sheep - from the idea that a black sheep's wool was much less valuable than a white sheep's wool because of the difficulty of dyeing black wool other colors. Also, in the 16th century black was seen as the mark of the devil.

July 2008. blaze a trail - from a technique used in the 18th century of marking a trail by 'blazing' or notching trees to show the way .

July 2008. bottom of the barrel (scrape the bottom of the barrel) - referring to the 'least desirable'; originating from the metaphor of the sediment left behind in a barrel of wine. In the time of Cicero, this phrase described the lowest population of Roman society.

June 2008. breathe easy - from the late 1500s as 'breathe again'. The idea that when stressed or anxious, one would hold one's breath or stop breathing.

June 2008. bright-eyed and bushy-tailed - from the allusion that a squirrel - having small, beady eyes and a fluffy, bushy tail - looks prepared for anything.

June 2008. butt in - slang from the 1890s alluding to the thrusting movements an animal makes with its horns.

June 2008. carrot and stick - the concept behind this phrase comes from the idea of holding an enticement, such as a carrot, in front of a donkey or horse while at the same time prodding or beating it with a stick to get it to move forward.

May 2008. cheap skate - this idiom comes from the combination of 'cheap' and 'skate', the slang word for a person of low life or of contempt.

May 2008. chump change - the word 'chump' alludes to a person considered a fool or sucker not worth acknowledging; someone trivial; thus 'chump change' is a trivial amount of money or trivial matter.

May 2008. come up roses - Eric Partridge believed this phrase was at its origin 'fall into shit and come up smelling like roses'; the vulgarities now are omitted with only 'come up roses' alluding to emerging from a difficult situation untarnished.

May 2008. cough up - alludes to the idea of 'bringing things up' by the act of vomiting, as in 'vomiting up the truth'.

April 2008. crack a smile - colloquial transference of 'break' to 'crack' as in the breaking of a more serious facial expression into a smile.

April 2008. cut both ways - from the 1600s reference to a double-edged sword; currently meaning having advantages and disadvantages.

April 2008. cut to the chase - alludes to a part of the process of film editing (cutting) which gets the exciting chase scenes incorporated in the final product.

April 2008. dead as a doornail - dating back to about 1350. Probably refers to the costly, metal nails which wealthy people used on their outer doors and which were then clinched on the inside of these doors, rendering them 'dead' or unable to be used again.

March 2008. fast track - refers to the hard, dry horse track which allows horses to run with great speed.

March 2008. fate worse than death - originally referred to a woman's loss of her virginity and the serious state of affairs which this implied.

March 2008. ferret out - from the practice of using ferrets (weasel-like animals) to chase out rabbits from their burrows.

March 2008. fight tooth and nail - first recorded in 1576; references biting with the teeth and scratching with the nails in a fight.

February 2008. fit to be tied - this phrase suggests volatility so intense that physical restraint is needed.

February 2008. fizzle out - initially dating from the late 1500s "to break wind without making noise". With time, the meaning was applied to any hissing type of noise; later the meaning transposed into any endeavor with a disappointing ending.

February 2008. for a song - late 1500s; refers to the meager amount of money given to street singers or the trivial price of sheet music.

February 2008. for crying out loud - early 1900s; a less crass way of saying "for Christ's sake".

January 2008. for two cents (put in one's two cents, two cent's worth) - from late 1800s; the giving of one's opinion whether it's asked for or not and whether it's worthwhile or not.

January 2008. front burner (on the front burner) - dates from 1960s; references when a cook puts the foodstuffs requiring the most attention on the stove's front burners.

January 2008. get a rise out of - refers to the fishing technique of dropping a fly in a fishing spot, hopeful that a fish will surface to grab the bait.

January 2008. get one's head examined - Eric Partridge thought this term may refer to the now defunct field of phrenology which proposed that the skull's configurations revealed emotional and mental characteristics.

December 2007. get wind of - from the first half of the 1800s; alludes to an animal's ability to perceive a scent carried on the wind.

December 2007. good grief - origin from early 1900s; an exclamation of grief, alarm, surprise etc. referencing the euphemism 'good God'.

December 2007. goose pimples (goose bumps) - alludes to the look of the skin of a plucked goose bearing resemblance to the look of a person's skin when he/she is cold or afraid.

December 2007. haste makes waste - originally recorded as a rhyming warning in 1575; full text from John Ray's proverb collection of 1678 is 'haste makes waste, and waste makes want, and want makes strife between the good man and his wife."

November 2007. hate someone's guts - slang of 1900s referencing a deep hatred of someone's inner essence (guts).

November 2007. have one's druthers - slang from late 1800s; a contraction of the phrase 'would rather'.

November 2007. have the guts - alludes to having courage; first transposed in early 1500s from having the 'stomach'; became 'guts' in late 1800s, slang.

November 2007. head over heels - initially coined in 1300s 'heels over head', upside down; transposed to present form in 1700s; by 1800s had acquired present meaning.

October 2007. hear, hear - transformed from 'hear him!', calling attention to the words of a speaker, to current usage as a cheer (late 1600s).

October 2007. hold someone's feet to the fire - from the practice of the ancient test of holding one's feet to a fire to determine the degree of courage one possessed. Figurative use began in mid 1900s.

October 2007. hold up - references the action of a victim of a bank robbery holding their hands high in the air (late 1800s).

October 2007. how come (how so) - dating from the mid-1800s phrase 'how did it come about that...', and 'how is it so that...' (dating from 1300s).

September 2007. in cold blood - alludes to the idea of blood being the keeper of emotions (hot in passion, cold in calm); therefore the term negates the heat of passion and advances the idea of a calculated manner.

September 2007. in the cards - origins from the phrase 'on the cards' which references fortunetelling cards.

September 2007. in the red, in the black - references the time-honored bookkeeping practice tracking debits in red ink and credits in black ink.

September 2007. in the twinkling of an eye - references the very short time needed to blink an eye.

August 2007. keel over - alludes to the capsizing of a vessel as it rolls on its side and overturns, with the keel pointing up or turning over.

August 2007. knocked for a loop; thrown for a loop - dating from first half of 1900s. Alludes to a comic strip character being shoved or pushed hard enough to end up rolling in the shape of a loop.

August 2007. la-la land - slang, around 1980 referencing the city of Los Angeles and its reputation for harboring eccentric inhabitants.

August 2007. last resort - dates from late 1600s referring to a court of law in which no appeal was possible.

July 2007. absurd - Latin surdus means "deaf." Something that is absurd is presumably something only a deaf person could stand. Something that is not compatible with reason. The implication is that a person who holds an absurd idea is deaf to the rules of logic or to common sense.

July 2007. accolade - French - originally meant 'an embrace.' It was used for the ceremony by which one was made a knight (which included an embrace).

July 2007. adamant - Greek for "invincible," and then Latin for "diamond." Someone who is adamant is as hard to change or convince, as a diamond is to scratch.

July 2007. birds, for the - In big cities like New York, when horse-drawn wagons were in fashion, horse manure littered the streets. A large population of sparrows ate it, or the undigested oats in it. So when you say that something is for the birds, you are saying it is like horse manure.

June 2007. brusque - from a Latin word meaning 'a butcher's broom.' If someone is brusque with you, they are sweeping you away quickly.

June 2007. bulldozer - During Reconstruction (1865-76), a "bull-dose" (a dose of a bullwhip) was given to black people in the South who tried to vote by groups who did not want them to like the KKK. Soon anyone who used coercion, by threats or violence, was called a 'bulldozer.'

June 2007. bumpkin - from a Dutch word meaning 'small tree' - hence, a country-person believed to have the intelligence of a tree.

June 2007. clod - yet another slight on people who lived in the countryside. City folk looked down on country folk, which is how a clod of earth turned into a clod - originally just someone not living in the city, and assumed to have the intelligence of a piece of dirt.

May 2007. cloud nine - Meteorologists classify the very tallest cloud, cumulonimbus, as cloud nine. If you feel like you are on cloud nine, you are feeling pretty high.

May 2007. cold turkey - Heroin or morphine addicts have withdrawal symptoms that include large bumps on the skin - making it look like the skin of a plucked turkey.

May 2007. Mark Twain - Samuel Clemens was once a steamboat captain on the Mississippi. He took his pen name from the steamboat call for 'two fathoms' - "twain" meaning 'two,' and "mark" referring to the marking on the boat signifying a fathom.

May 2007. dyed in the wool - dying something "in the wool," means dying it before it is woven into cloth. This process once created a much more permanent color. In someone's opinions are "dyed in the wool," they are fixed and permanent.

April 2007. fiend - from Old English and originally meaning 'enemy,' then 'Satan,' and then 'someone acting like Satan.'

April 2007. filch - Medieval thieves' slang for a rod with a hook on it used for nabbing goods from a merchant's stall.

April 2007. fink - from a German-Yiddish word meaning 'finch,' a family of songbirds. A fink was originally an informer or a stool pigeon.

April 2007. jaded - In Chaucer's time, "jade" meant 'a tired or worn-out horse.'

March 2007. make the grade - a railroad term, in which 'grade' meant the slope of track in hill country. This became a concern as the railroad system expanded in the U.S. and trains carried heavier loads.

March 2007. partridge - from a Greek word meaning 'farter,' - apparently from the sound of the whirring wings of a partridge taking off in flight.

March 2007. scuttlebutt - originally a "scuttled butt" was the water barrel on a ship's deck for sailors to get drinking water. Sailors tended to hang around the scuttlebutt to gossip and spread rumors.

March 2007. seamy side - if you turn a garment inside out, you see the less attractive side, where you can see all the sewing seams.

February 2007. to give short shrift - shrift is an old word meaning religious confession. Anyone who was not able to give a full confession before he died was said to have been given short shrift.

February 2007. sloppy - this metaphor comes from two different words: "slop" meaning liquid mud - which eventually meant to splash or spill something, and "slop" meaning bag - which came to mean a baggy or ill-fitting piece of clothing.

February 2007. souse - originally came from a word meaning "salt," as in salted or pickled meat. Someone who is soused (drunk) is often referred to as pickled.

February 2007. subjugate - came from a Latin word meaning "yoke," or to be "under the yoke." When the Roman army conquered a new country, the defeated army was forced to march under a yoke to signify that from now on they were "yoked" liked oxen, or no longer free.

January 2007. tapped out - this saying probably came from a poker player's routine of tapping on the table when he does not want to raise - often because he is out of money.

January 2007. tide one over - small rivers often had bars of sand or mud at their mouths. At low tide, this area was not passable by boats or ships. They would have to wait until high tide to pass through. A friend may lend us some money to tide us over a difficult time financially.

January 2007. to turn over a new leaf - the leaf refers figuratively to a page on which one's deeds and misdeeds were recorded. So the phrase means 'to start fresh' by turning to a new page in one's life.

January 2007. zealot - a Greek word originally referring to the Jewish sect who led a great revolt against Roman rule in 72 A.D. The Zealots were called such because of their extreme religious and nationalistic zeal.

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Updated: June 5, 2011