We seldom pause to contemplate the literal meaning of commonly used expressions or phrases. Many have evolved over hundreds of years. Others are relatively new. Then there are those infused with new life due to modern events. For example, it is almost impossible nowadays to ignore the word “Trump,” but it is key to an expression that is hundreds of years old as you’ll see further on.
Flying by the seat of your pants…. This expression goes back to a pilot who became known as “Wrong Way Corrigan” in the 1930’s when he apparently ignored his flight plan from Brooklyn, NY, to Los Angeles and ended up in Dublin, Ireland. This resulted in the following headline: “Corrigan Flies by Seat of His Pants.”
Wet behind the ears…. We all know what it means and you might even know it goes all the way back in infancy, shortly after birth, when the baby is still wet behind the ears. Why they chose behind the ears instead of elsewhere is subject to debate.
Brand spanking new… What’s with the spanking? Isn’t that a form of punishment, and what does that have to do with a brand? Some language experts trace it back to an even older expression, “spick and span,” which means pretty much the same thing.
When the stuff hits the fan… We don’t usually say “stuff” but you know the real expression. So why this particular stuff and why a fan? It probably caught on because it is such a strong visual. It means, according to one dictionary, “when expected trouble materializes.” It’s usually messy and dates back to the 1930’s or shortly after electric fans became common appliances.
Whistle-blowers… They are known today as revealers of wrongdoing in an organization, such as a corporation or governmental body. The first whistle-blowers were actually the police in pre-siren days, who alerted the public of a crime or fleeing perpetrator with shrill whistles.
The whole shebang… I’m sure you’ve said or heard the expression, probably even used it. It is American in origin, though the word shebang is probably not. It’s a more dramatic way of saying “the whole thing” or “all of it.” As for shebang, it was used in a Walt Whitman poem from the Civil War talking about soldiers camping in a “shebang enclosure of bushes.” As for me, I prefer the “whole ball of wax” or even “the whole shooting match.”
Slush fund… We know that a slush fund is hidden money used for illegal or unethical purposes, usually in politics. Is it like half-melted snow or half-frozen water? One of the earliest meanings of slush in colonial America was “the rancid fat of pork” but I doubt if there was a fund for that.
Facing the music… It means accepting something bound to be unpleasant, possibly dangerous and even illicit. You certainly want to “face the music” to better appreciate it— unless you’re wearing headphones. One theory I’ve come across is that actors face the music, or orchestra pit, in musicals but that shouldn’t be unpleasant. It may also go back to disgraced soldiers facing the drums, if that can be called music, when publicly demoted.
Coming up trumps… Coming up trumps still means that something is a real winner, but it has nothing to do with a hand of cards— at least not in its origins. It has been around since the 1600’s as a deviated form of the word “triumph” so you can figure it out from there. If you’ve been trumped in modern lingo, it means an adversary has got the better of you. No wonder that a certain Trump constantly refers to himself as a winner, and coming up Trumps will probably never mean the same since the election of 2016.
Make no bones about it… It makes no sense in our times, though it probably did in days of yore. Folks didn’t like to find bones floating in their soup, etymologists report, and finding bones came to mean criticism in general and, eventually making no bones about it meant quite the opposite.,
Red tape… We’ve all confronted this symbol of frustrating bureaucracy and its origin makes sense. Governmental and legal documents of hundreds of years ago were often tied in scrolls with red tape or ribbon. Alhough we’re marching resolutely toward a paperless world, there’s more red tape than ever.
The bee’s knees… It means high quality or excellence and was a popular expression in the 1920’s and seldom used now. It has come to be regarded as a nonsense phrase because bees don’t have knees, right? Actually, they have segmented legs that bend as our knees do. My understanding is that bees seldom have knee-jerk reactions.
Kick the bucket… Its casual view of mortality tends to make light of death. The accepted explanation is rather morbid. When people committed suicide by hanging they’d stand on a bucket, put their head in a noose and kick the bucket out from under them.
Can’t hold a candle to… This comparison means you can’t even come close to matching the merits of someone or something in talent, skill or effort, as in, “The movie can’t hold a candle to the book.” This supposedly goes back to when apprentices would hold a candle for a craftsman so he could see what he was doing.
This column may not be the bee’s knees or hold a candle to others I’ve written, but I’m willing to face the music. I’m not exactly wet behind the ears in this kind of thing, but sometimes you have to fly by the seat of your pants if you expect to come up trumps.