Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 9

Oh wow. I didn’t realize that it had been over a year since my last installment of my Just in the Nick of Time series. Despite my absence from researching the topic, the idioms and colloquial phrases that we use in our every day language are still one of my favorite things. As we have discussed before; these idioms and colloquial phrases sometimes sound completely ludicrous out of context, but many of them have very real and amazingly explainable origins. Many of us have used or know someone who uses these interesting idioms or crazy sounding colloquial phrases. In this second to the last part of our series (you can find 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 here) we find out the history of:

“Half a mind to”, “Bless your heart”, “If the Lord doesn’t come back”, “Flat as a Fritter”, “Like a chicken with its head cut off”, and “Letting your hair down”. 


“Half a mind to” – 

Origin: “The Texas Troubadour” Ernest Tubb is a Country Music Hall of Fame member and was a prolific songwriter. Not only is he a pioneer of country music but he also is what I think of whenever I think of the term “half  a mind to”. He did a cover of the Roger Mill song (which was later covered by fellow Hall of Fame member Loretta Lynn whom Ernest Tubb also did many duets early in her career) “Half a Mind to” which he popularized. While the original usage of the phrase is not from the Roger Mill song; the origin is unknown. Its usage grew in popularity during the first half of the 1700s but I have a good mind to think that it all started with someone with a really good mind making a really funny joke.

Meaning: The inclination that something is not definite. Mostly used in conjunction with a threat.


“Bless your heart” – 

Origin: If you aren’t from the American South, then you probably only heard this expression used by comedians or by the quintessential Southern character on TV. To those of us from the South, its just a saying that most of us use. The origin of the phrase is not known but it has been around for a while. While Southern women have popularized the expression, Charles Dickens actually used the saying in this 1838 book Oliver Twist where he said “Lor bless her dear heart.” Now I’m not implying that a group of dignified Southern ladies started using this saying after reading it in their book club; but hey it could happen. My interpretation is not confirmed but it is my belief that the phrase could be an amalgamation of the phrase ‘God bless you’ and something else. The reason I say that is because when the bubonic plague was ravaging through Europe, Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) suggested to tell someone “God Bless You” after coughing and sneezing because they were symptoms of the plague. In hopes that this prayer would protect them from otherwise death. The well wishing bestowment of the “God bless you” was more than likely the original intent of the “Bless your heart”. Coincidentally, there is a myth that your heart stopped when you sneeze. Just saying. That’s quite a coincidence but it more than likely comes from well wishers just hoping for blessings to be bestowed upon someone who needs it despite the negative usages of the phrase that are sometimes found in our modern society.

Meaning: 1. Used in conjunction with an insult (ie “Bless her heart, she’s dumb as a doornail but at least she’s pretty.”) or to say something negative but they don’t want to appear rude. 2. Used as a genuine expression of concern for someone or the situation that they are going through (“Bless his heart. His car broke down on the way to his wife’s funeral.”)


“If the Lord don’t come back” – 

Origin: A phrase similar to an already discussed phrase “Lord Willing/Lord Willing and the creek don’t rise“, the “if the Lord don’t come back” phrase is different in that it has true religious origins. One of the origins for the phrase “God willing” or the Latin deo volente is from the book of James chapter 4 verses 14-15: “Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” While that origin is true for that specific phrase, the phrase ‘If the Lord don’t come back” is in reference to the rapture. The rapture in regards to the Christian religion is a promise Jesus made where he said “…if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” The promise is discussed many times in the Holy Bible and would be a well known thing for many English speakers. The description of the event is for Jesus to come and ‘like a thief in the night’ take his people home. So when used in conjunction with a promise, the speaker is saying that they guarantee that they will do it, as long ‘as the Lord don’t come back’ before they can.

Meaning: An expression used in conjunction with a promise that that action will be done as long as there are no extenuating circumstances to stop them from completing that action.

Flat as a fritter/flitter” – 

Origin: The fritter is sometimes filled with some sort of meat or fruit but it is normally like a small pancake. The fritter is a flour/liquid mixture, cooked in a pan with oil (similar to a pancake) and is cooked almost all around the world in some variation. The colloquial phrase however is more often used in rural areas of the western United States although it is also popular in the American South. The phrase (which is a simile) varies as some believe that the correct wording is fritter; but the ‘flitter’ is also another word for a thin pan fried bread (thin flapjack, Johnny Cake, Ho-Cake, corn bread, etc). Who knew that both exists as almost the same thing?

Meaning: A simile showing relation to an item being flatter than usual.


“Like a Chicken with its head cut off” – 

Origin: I’m sure that all of you have not had the pleasure (please sense the sarcasm in my voice) of killing a chicken or turkey and witnessing it run around crazily for several minutes after decapitation. When I was a youth; my family (grandparents, parents, uncle and aunt, cousin and myself thought that it would be a grand idea to kill, clean and pluck our own turkey for Thanksgiving. Well after the chopping off of the head, the next thing I remember is the turkey running around my grandparent’s backyard with no head and blood squirting from its neck. Sounds far fetched? What happens is that the brain delivers the messages to the body parts but in the time of the beheading, the body goes into shock. That is why sometimes the animal lives for quite some time afterwards. Sometimes the live for a very long time if the animal is not butchered correctly. Like in the case of Mike the headless Chicken or more commonly known as Miracle Mike, he was quite literally ‘running around like a chicken with its head cut off’. In 1945, a Colorado farmer named Lloyd Olsen was planning on eating chicken for supper with his mother-in-law that night, so his wife sent him outside to the chicken yard to bring back a chicken. Lloyd chose a five and a half month old Wyandotte chicken named Mike. Well when Mrs. Olsen went to cut the head off of Mike, but the axe removed only the bulk of his head. It missed the jugular vein, one ear and most of his brain stem. Mike balanced himself after the failed attempt and the Olsens found him the next morning with the remaining portions of his neck nestled under his wing like normal. (Most of a chicken’s basic reflexes <breathing, heart rate, etc> are controlled in the brain stem, so Mike was relatively healthy.) One of two things, the owners felt sorry for him or they saw a money making opportunity. As word spread of the “Headless Wonder Chicken;” the owners began to tour the sideshow circuit and people were lining up to pay a quarter to marvel at this headless chicken (at one point the family was making up to $4500 a month). Mike would have lived a lot longer but as his fame grew on his national tour (was photographed by countless newspapers and magazines; and was even had a spotlight in both Time and Life Magazines); his owners lost the dropper that they used to clear the kernel of corn and fluid that would occasionally settle in the small throat that was left. Mike sadly choked to death on his own spit in 1947.

The phrase itself was around long before the famous, money-making headless chicken and would have been very well known by the late 19th century. The phrase, which the English teacher in me wants to remind you is also a simile, was even used as such in an 1882 Atlanta Constitution article to describe an escaped prisoner where they said; “(f)inding himself free from the heavy shackles, he bounced to his feet and commenced darting about like a chicken with its head cut off.”

Meaning: To run around in a frenzied manner.


Letting your hair down” – 

Origin: The idiom “letting your hair down” has been around for hundreds of years. The idiom originated in the 17th century, when women were expected to wear their hair a  certain way in public. It either had to be pulled tightly up to the head, in a bun, pinned on either side of the head, or in some sort of elaborate style. The only time that it was acceptable to ‘let their hair down’ would be when they were home alone and could relax. This was the time that they would remove all the pins or other accessories that were holding their hair in that style, wash their hair clean of any products, and brush their hair.

Meaning: To behave freely, act more casually and relax.




Ernest Tubb (Ad on page 335 of Billboard 1944 Music Yearbook) attributed to Source – Unknown – , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42571795

Mike the Headless Chicken attributed to Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25497651


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