The Origin of Cliche Expressions

My Navy friend, Joe Obusek, sent me a list of language expressions and their origin. Although quite familiar with the expressions I had no idea where they originated. The list follows:


Early aircraft throttles had a ball on the end of it, in order to go full
throttle the pilot had to push the throttle all the way forward into the
wall of the instrument panel. Hence “balls to the wall” for going very fast.
And now you know the rest of the story.

During WWII, U.S. Airplanes were armed with belts of bullets which they would shoot during dogfights and on strafing runs. These belts were folded into the wing compartments that fed their machine guns. The belts measured
27 feet and contained hundreds of rounds of bullets. Often times, the pilots
would return from their missions having expended all of their bullets on
various targets. They would say, I gave them the whole nine yards, meaning
they used up all of their ammunition.

Did you know the saying “God willing and the creek don’t rise” was in
reference to the Creek Indians and not a body of water? It was written by
Benjamin Hawkins in the late 18th century. He was a politician and Indian
diplomat. While in the south, Hawkins was requested by the President of the U.S.
to return to Washington. In his response, he was said to write, “God
willing and the Creek don’t rise.” Because he capitalized the word “Creek” he
was referring to the Creek Indian tribe and not a body of water.

In George Washington’s days, there were no cameras. One’s image was
either sculpted or painted. Some paintings of George Washington showed him
standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while others showed both
legs and both arms. Prices charged by painters were not based on how many
people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be painted. Arms and
legs are ‘limbs,’ therefore painting them would cost the buyer more. Hence
the expression, ‘Okay, but it’ll cost you an arm and a leg.’ (Artists know
hands and arms are more difficult to paint.)

As incredible as it sounds, men and women took baths only twice a year
(May and October). Women kept their hair covered, while men shaved their heads
(because of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford good
wigs made from wool. They couldn’t wash the wigs, so to clean them they would
carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell, and bake it for 30
minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the term ‘big
wig’. Today we often use the term ‘here comes the Big Wig’ because someone
appears to be or is powerful and wealthy.

In the late 1700’s, many houses consisted of a large room with only one
chair. Commonly, a long wide board folded down from the wall, and was used
for dining. The ‘head of the household’ always sat in the chair while
everyone else ate sitting on the floor. Occasionally a guest, who was usually a
man, would be invited to sit in this chair during a meal. To sit in the
chair meant you were important and in charge. They called the one sitting in
the chair the ‘chairman.’ Today in business, we use the expression or title
‘Chairman’ or ‘Chairman of the Board.’

Personal hygiene left much room for improvement. As a result, many women
and men had developed acne scars by adulthood. The women would spread bee’s
wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were
speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman’s face
she was told, ‘mind your own bee’s wax.’ Should the woman smile, the wax
would crack, hence the term ‘crack a smile’. In addition, when they sat too
close to the fire, the wax would melt.  Therefore, the expression ‘losing

Ladies wore corsets, which would lace up in the front. A proper and
dignified woman, as in ‘straight laced’ wore a tightly tied lace.

Common entertainment included playing cards. However, there was a tax
levied when purchasing playing cards but only applicable to the ‘Ace of
Spades.’ To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet,
since most games require 52 cards, these people were thought to be stupid or
dumb because they weren’t ‘playing with a full deck.’

Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what the
people considered important. Since there were no telephones, TV’s or
radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars.
They were told to ‘go sip some Ale and listen to people’s conversations and
political concerns.’  Many assistants were dispatched at different times.
‘You go sip here’ and ‘You go sip there.’ The two words ‘go sip’ were
eventually combined when referring to the local opinion and, thus we have the
term ‘gossip.’

At local taverns, pubs, and bars, people drank from pint and quart-sized
containers. A bar maid’s job was to keep an eye on the customers and keep
the drinks coming. She had to pay close attention and remember who was
drinking in ‘pints’ and who was drinking in quarts,’ hence the phrase ‘minding
your ‘P’s and Q’s’.

One more: bet you didn’t know this!  In the heyday of sailing ships, all
war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons. Those cannons fired
round iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near the
cannon. However, how to prevent them from rolling about the deck?  The best
storage method devised was a square-based pyramid with one ball on top, resting
on four resting on nine, which rested on sixteen.  Thus, a supply of 30
cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There
was only one problem…how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding or
rolling from under the others. The solution was a metal plate called a ‘Monkey’
with 16 round indentations. However, if this plate were made of iron, the
iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem
was to make ‘Brass Monkeys.’ Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts
much more and much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the
temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that
the iron cannonballs would come right off the monkey; Thus, it was quite
literally, ‘Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.’

3 thoughts on “The Origin of Cliche Expressions

  1. Jim, I particularly liked the last one. In NAperville today I don,t know if it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey but it sure as heck did damage to this little boys package.

  2. Interesting. I’ve heard another genesis of the “whold nine yards”. Concrete was delivered in trucks that held 9 yards of concrete the person ordering might say, ”send the whole nine yards.”

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