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The Word Guy: Dictionary of idioms packs a punch

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Browsing through the newest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $15.95) makes me feel “as pleased as Punch” and “as happy as a clam.”

The former phrase, reports the Dictionary of Idioms, refers to the sinister satisfaction felt by the evil character Punch in “Punch and Judy” puppet shows after he has performed a wicked deed. The latter, which is a shortening of “happy as a clam at high tide,” refers to the fact that clams can be dug only at low tide and, thus, feel safe at high tide.

I also learned that “birthday suit” first referred, not to being naked, but to the suit of clothes people wore on the king's birthday, equivalent to our “Sunday best.” Who nude ... er, knew?

I also loved discovering the fascinating origins of the following phrases.

Apple of one's eye: You might assume this term for a special favorite derives from the appeal of a shiny apple. In fact, folks back in biblical times thought the pupil of the eye resembled an apple, so the “apple of one's eye” was the center of a precious part of the body and, by extension, a cherished person or thing.

On the wagon: In the late 19th century, horse-drawn water wagons sprinkled dirt roads to keep down the dust. So, someone who had stopped drinking alcohol was said to be “on the water wagon,” that is, drinking water, not booze. During the 20th century, people dropped the word “water” from the phrase.

Boot up: This term for starting up a computer is a clipping of “bootstrap up,” as in “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” It originally referred to using one set of instructions, as though they were bootstraps, to load another set of instructions.

Cut-and-dried: This phrase probably could have derived from many kinds of food items, but it originally referred to herbs that had been cut and dried for sale in a shop, as opposed to fresh, just-picked herbs.

But not all derivations are so cut-and-dried. For instance, the Dictionary of Idioms offers three possible origins for the “brass tacks” in the phrase “get down to brass tacks”: 1. The tacks that lie hidden under the upholstery on furniture; 2. Cockney rhyming slang for “hard facts”; 3. The brass tacks hammered into the counters at retail stores at regular intervals for the purpose of measuring items, as a yardstick does. To get down to brass tacks, nobody knows.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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