Sunday, December 6, 2015

Book Reveals Where Hundreds Of Phrases Originated From

The Little Book of Answers: The How, Where, and Why of Stuff You Thought You Knew

Doug Lennox

I recently enjoyed a copy of a wonderfully done book that shows how hundreds of commonly used phrases, nicknames, and terms came to be.

Here is a sample of excerpts from the book:

Why do we call Academy Awards “Oscars”?
Since 1928, the Academy Awards have been issued by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for excellence in filmmaking.  The statuettes were nicknamed “Oscar” in 1931 by Margaret Herrick, a secretary at the academy who, upon seeing one for the first time, exclaimed, “Why it looks just like my uncle Oscar.”  Her uncle was Oscar Pierce, a wheat farmer.

Why do we call the genuine article the “real McCoy”?
In the 1890s, a great boxer known as Kid McCoy couldn’t get the champion to fight him, and so to seem beatable, he began to throw the odd bout, and fans never knew if they’d seen the “real McCoy.”  The plan worked, and he became the welterweight champion of the world.  Once, while in a bar, McCoy was challenged by a drunken patron who didn’t believe that he was the great boxer, and McCoy flattened him.  When the man came around, he declared that the man who had knocked him out was indeed the “real McCoy.”

Who was Mortimer Mouse and whatever happened to him?
Mortimer was Walt Disney’s original name for a cartoon mouse in the historic 1928 cartoon “Plane Crazy.”  When Walt came home and told his wife about the little mouse, she didn’t like the name “Mortimer” and suggested that “Mickey” was more pleasant-sounding.  Walt thought about it for a while and then grudgingly gave in, and that’s how Mickey, and not Mortimer, went on to become the foundation of an entertainment empire.

Why do we call wealthy members of society the “upper crust”?
In the days of feudalism, when noblemen gathered for a meal in the castle, those of higher rank sat at the head of a T-shaped table, and the rest sat in order of diminishing importance away from them.  For such occasions a yard-long loaf of bread was baked, and the honor of making the first cut belonged to the highest-ranking person at the head table, who would then pass the bread down in order of rank, but always keeping for himself the “upper crust.”

Why do we call New York “The Big Apple”?
During the 1940s, Robert Emmerich, who played piano in the Tommy Dorsey Band, wrote an obscure song called “The Big Apple.”  It was soon forgotten by everyone except legendary reporter Walter Winchell, who liked the song so much that in his daily column and on the air he began referring to his beat, New York City, as “The Big Apple,” and soon, even though Emmerich’s song was long forgotten, its title became the great city’s nickname.

Why does a man refer to his wife as his “better half”?
Most men call their wives their “better half” because they believe it, but the expression comes from an ancient Middle Eastern legend. When a Bedouin man had been sentence to death, his wife pleaded with the tribal leader that because they were married, she and her husband had become one, and that to punish one-half of the union would also punish the half who was innocent.  The court agreed and the man’s life was saved by his “better half.”

Why do we call someone who continually takes the fall for someone else a “whipping boy”?
In the mid-seventeenth century, young princes and aristocrats were sent off to school with a young servant who would attend classes and receive an education while also attending to his master’s needs.  If the master found himself in trouble, the servant would take the punishment for him, even if it were a whipping.  He was his master’s “whipping boy.”

Some of the other questions it answers includes these:

Why do we say "justice is blind'?
Why do we cross our fingers when wishing for luck?
Why do we say, 'Every dog has its day'?
Where did the expression "the whole nine yards" come from?
Why were executions held at sunrise?
Why do we call a dollar a 'buck'?
How did we start celebrating Mother's Day?
Within a democracy, what are the fourth and fifth estates?

The book definitely gives you an understanding of how so many phrases that you have heard for decades actually came to be. Often the explanation makes sense but sometimes runs counter to what you thought was the derivation of the phrase. What's even more interesting is that these phrases have lasted so long and get applied in new ways in our tech-driven modern society. Is a bird in hand still worth two in the bush? I don't know, but just make sure you don't go out when it is raining cats and dogs. 

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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