We are now venturing onto the 4th blog in our ten part series. If you missed out; you can visit their magnanimous wonder (1, 2, and, 3) after you have read number this one of course. In part four of our Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases series, we will be learning the history of: For Pete’s sake, Quitting cold turkey, High on the hog, Dead as a doornail, Down to Earth, and Taking a raincheck.
“For Pete’s Sake” –
Origin: We all have heard someone from the American South (whether in person or on TV) say “For Pete’s Sake”; but have you, like I, wondered who in the world Pete is? Well as your face radiates with magnanimous wonder awaiting the origin of this much used word, I have to regretfully tell you that…no one really knows. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the saying started more than century ago as a euphemistic variant of “for God’s sake”. As we said in our last idiom blog, ‘dog gone’ is a replacement for something that take’s the Lord’s name in vain and most people of that period (and currently as well) would steer clear of blasphemy. Some scholars have speculated that the ‘Pete’ is none other than Saint Peter himself but that is just speculation. Another speculation is the pete is actually a modified version of ‘for pity’s sake’ but as I said…regretfully no one knows for sure.
Meaning: An exclamation of emphasis, surprise, or disbelief.
“Quitting Cold Turkey” –
Origin: One of my best friends who smoked cigarettes since he was 13 said he had ‘just quit cold turkey’. And I knew that that friend meant that he had stopped smoking cigarettes…and not just given up eating cold sliced deli meat but I still can’t help but chuckle when I hear someone say that phrase. There have been many explanations as to the origin of why someone would compare ‘quitting’ or doing something definite with of all things…cold turkey. In 1921, Dr. Carleton Simon spoke about his pitiful patients and described their ‘cold turkey’ treatment. I guess if you’re hungry, a cold turkey treatment sounds great but what if you are a recovering heroin addict? Herb Caen, from the San Fransisco Chronicle says that the saying “…derives from the hideous combination of goosepimples and what William S. Burroughs calls the ‘cold burn’ that addicts suffer as they kick the habit.” Sounds like a more logical explanation than author Tom Philbin’s theory that the saying derives from the ‘term that may derive from the cold, clammy feel of the skin during withdrawl, like a turkey that has been refrigerated.” The only draw back to this explanation is that the saying originated many years before it was used in conjunction with ‘stopping an addiction’. Though the term was used early in the 1900s, the term cold turkey is thought to have derived from the 1800s phrase ‘talk turkey’. Talk turkey meant to tell something plainly, while being cold meant to be straightforward and use a matter-of-fact tone. So whether it is cigarettes or stopping playing video games until 3 in the morning when you have to be at work at 7:30…stopping something cold turkey means that you are immediately stopping something despite the discomfort that comes along with it.
Meaning: Withdraw from an addictive substance or other dependency.
“High on the Hog” –
Origin: We all know someone who is living ‘high on the hog’ but what does that exactly mean? Despite the saying ‘living high on the hog’ becoming popularized in the 1940s, the saying originated in the 1800s as an idiomatic expression for someone who is eating or living wealthy. We take advantage of the common convenience of the grocery store and the competitive prices found at Food Lion or Walmart; but many years ago, the only way to eat meat was to slaughter the animal on your own farm or to go to a butcher. On a hog, the most costly cuts of meat that are literally higher on the pig’s body are more expensive. The ‘low on the hog’ items like the feet, knuckles, hocks, belly, chitterlings, snout, jowls, etc were lower priced and therefore were purchased by poor people. So if you were rich, you were quite literally eating…high on the hog.
Meaning: Living comfortably and living/eating extravagantly.
“Dead as a Doornail” –
Origin: In King Henry VI, Part 2; Shakespeare wrote, “Look on me well…if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.” It would seem that a lot of emphasis was placed on the life of a doornail prior to 1592, but Shakespeare wasn’t the first to coin the phrase. In 1350, French poet William Langland translated a poem using the phrase “I am ded as dorenayl,” and later in 1362 wrote in his famous poem The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman, “Fey withouten fait is febelore þen nouȝt, And ded as a dore-nayl (which is translated to be “Faith without works is feebler than nothing, and dead as a doornail.”). It is logical that Shakespeare got the influence from Langland’s poetry but where did the expression come from prior to the 1300s? In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens alluded to the meaning of the phrase after he stated that “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail” when he said:
“Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
Dickens knew, as we will in a few moments, that a doornail was actually the large-headed studs that were used in carpentry to add stability to a home’s doorway. The doornail was produced by the carpenter hammering the nail through the board, into the wall, and then bending the end over to secure it properly. This process, which is similar to riveting, was called clenching. The clenching would cause the nail to be ‘dead’ due to the the fact that after the bending the nail would be unusable (dead is a term associated with inanimate objects when they are unusable or when someone is finished with them). Despite the simile being around since the 1300s, it would appear that there is plenty of life left in this idiom.
Meaning: Absent of life, dead (when in reference to a living object). Finished with, unusable (when in reference to an inanimate object).
“Down to Earth” –
Origin: The 1932 book and subsequent movie Down to Earth, is more than likely the reason behind the popularity of the phrase despite a 1922 Newark Advocate garment advertisement utilizing the phrase to describe the ‘down to earth’ prices as opposed to the ‘astronomical’ prices of competitive brands. Down to Earth was a riches to rags story which ended with the wealthy man losing his wealth thanks to a spendthrift wife and a gambling son. After living the extravagant lifestyle before, he actually ends up happy in the end, because he is more ‘down to earth’
Meaning: Simple, realistic, practical and/or straightforward.
“Taking a Raincheck” –
Origin: My best friend and I were supposed to go watch a movie last weekend but I had to tell him that I had to take a rain check. It was raining coincidentally but I have always wondered what the exact meaning behind the phrase was. The first mention of the phrase ‘taking a rain check’ comes from baseball games from the 1880s. We all know that rain is something that we cannot control (or at least that’s what the government wants us to think ;)), so if a baseball game in the 1880s was rained out, then the ticket-holder would be issued a ‘rain check’ (sometimes a perforated stub to be torn from the ticket as popularized by Abner Powell) to be able to gain entrance to another game or when that game was replayed. Baseball’s National League actually wrote the ‘rain check’ stipulation into their formal constitution in 1890. The ‘rain check’ phrase caught on. The phrase is now used for simplistic things like promising to go out to eat with someone in the near future but I’ll take a rain check on writing anything else today. 😉
Meaning: Idiomatically is a polite way to turn down an invitation with the implication that you will accept the offer in the future while etymologically and literally is in reference to a physical ticket or check to receive goods of services at a future time.
Featured Image – Our Gang in “For Pete’s Sake!” episode marker, fair use.
Cold Turkey image by and accredited to Jonathunder – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3465369
1939 American League Baseball Club ticket photo accredited to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Fair use.