Carter: Origins of popular idioms

No surprise here, but we use a lot of words and phrases here at the Carroll County Times. One of our reporters, I won’t mention any names, keeps a list of expressions and idioms that she’s never heard before that come up either in our writing or in office discussions.

Most people know the meanings of these idioms — sayings that, if taken literally, don’t make too much sense — but don’t necessarily know their origin or etymology, myself included. So we started looking a few up the other day, and the answers were fascinating. So, I thought I’d share a few with our readers.


The one that sparked the conversation was “bought the farm,” which means to die. Traditionally, it was used regarding someone who died in an accident, often military action. But what does buying a farm have to do with dying?

Saying “he bought it” or “almost bought it” also refers to death or near death, meaning literally to have paid with your life. But this phrase precedes the earliest usage of “bought the farm.”


The “farm” part of the phrase, has a couple possibilities, all of which seem to have arisen around World War II. The most likely is that when a military pilot attempted to crash land an airplane in an open farm field, he would destroy a portion of the farmer’s crops. The U.S. government would then pay reimbursement for the crops.

Another possibility is that the family of a serviceman killed in action would receive a payout from the insurance that military personnel were issued. The amount would have been significant enough to pay off the family’s mortgage.

One of the more depressing origins of a popular idiom is that of the phrase “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” This means not to overreact in a way that is needlessly self-destructive.

Supposedly in the 12th century, Viking pirates landed in Scotland. In an effort to protect their chastity, a group of nuns were urged to disfigure themselves to appear unappealing to the Viking hoard. Legend has it the head nun cut off her nose to demonstrate, and others followed suit. It sort of worked. The Vikings instead burned the entire monastery with the nuns inside.

Earlier this week, a county official used the phrase “like gangbusters,” a shortened versions of the phrase “came on like gangbusters,” which means with energy, enthusiasm and/or excitement. But what’s a gangbuster?

The reference is to a popular radio program “Gang Busters,” that ran from 1936 to 1957, touted as the “only national program that brings you authentic police case histories.” Each episode of the show opened with loud, elaborate sound effects such as a police whistle, a siren, machine guns fire, etc., intended to hook and enthrall the listener. Hence, it “came on like ‘Gang Busters.’”

PETA's latest stunt, a chart on "how to remove speciesism from your daily conversations," is the latest in a brilliant marketing attempt to use our own outrage to raise the organization's profile.

This next idiom came up in my column last week — kill two birds with one stone (or, as PETA prefers, feed two birds with one scone). Typically, it means to address two issues with the same solution. But who was trying to fatally injure birds with a rock that coined this phrase?

There are a few theories, the most popular one traced back to the Greek mythological tale of Daedalus, who is being held captive in a tall tower, with birds flying overhead waiting to feast on the carcasses of Daedalus and his son. Daedalus decides to throw stones at the birds to fashion a pair of artificial wings to escape.

Using a clever throwing motion, he is able to ricochet a stone off one bird to another, killing them and getting feathers to fashion his wings. Not for nothing, in doing so he both literally and figuratively killed two birds with one stone. Mind … blown.

This weekend is a popular one for Christmas parties, so here’s one you might’ve heard or said this morning if you or a friend enjoyed too many glasses of holiday cheer Saturday night: Hair of the dog. That is, a supposed cure for a hangover which is to drink more alcohol. (I don’t recommend this, but to each his own. Drinking Pedialyte to re-hydrate, in my experience, is a better idea.)

What does canine fur have to do with imbibing too much?

The expression may refer to a superstition, possibly originating in Scotland, that, if bit by a dog — particularly a rabid one — that a few hairs of the same dog applied to the wound would stave off evil consequences. Think of it as rudimentary homeopathy.


However, it’s possible the phrase goes back even further in time. There is a reference in a text from Ugarit — an ancient port city in northern Syria — dating back to the second millennium B.C., in which a god imbibes too much and suffers the consequences. To cure his ills, a salve made up from olive oil, parts of a plant and hairs of a dog is applied to his forehead.

Perhaps this was just an ancient Ugarit recipe for Pedialyte?

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