Each week Albany Herald researcher Mary Braswell looks for interesting events, places and people from the past. You can contact her at (229) 888-9371 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Twice recently I have been asked why a certain term or expression is used and so, I searched for the answers.
Why is a Boston butt called a Boston butt? In pre-revolutionary New England and into the Revolutionary War, some pork cuts (not those highly valued, or “high on the hog,” like loin and ham) were packed into casks or barrels (also known as “butts”) for storage and shipment. The way the hog shoulder was cut in the Boston area became known in other regions as “Boston butt.” This name stuck and today, Boston butt is called that almost everywhere in America ... except in Boston.
Why do folks say “there’s more than one way to skin a cat?” The origin of this statement has proven difficult to find but this is what is known: Mark Twain used it in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” in 1889: “She was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat,” that is, more than one way to get what she wanted. An earlier appearance was in “Way down East; or, Portraitures of Yankee Life” by Seba Smith of about 1854: “This is a money digging world of ours; and, as it is said, ‘there are more ways than one to skin a cat,’ so are there more ways than one of digging for money.” The saying was recorded in John Ray’s collection of English proverbs as far back as 1678.
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• Going berserk refers to someone in a frenzy and seemingly out of control. The berserk(er) was a Norse warrior known for the fury of his fighting. His name came from an Icelandic word signifying the bear-skin (bear-sark) or coat he wore.
• Something rings true when it is appears believable beyond doubt. When coins were actually made from gold, silver or other metals, their value depended upon the amount of the metal they contained. A coin could be checked for authenticity by dropping it. If indeed the coin was made of the proper metal and amount, the sound it made would “ring true.”
• Someone’s Achilles’ heel is that person’s weakness. In Greek mythology, Thetis dropped her son Achilles in the mythological River Styx. Anyone immersed in the river became invulnerable. Since her hand covered her son’s heel as she dipped him, the water did not cover (nor protect) this part of his body. After surviving numerous battles, the story goes, Achilles was killed when a poisonous arrow struck him in his lone vulnerable spot.
• In days when people sold piglets in bags, the seller would sometimes try to trick the buyer by placing a cat in the bag instead. If the critter got loose, well, “the cat was out of the bag” and the trick exposed.
• Someone who spoke or acted in an extremely odd manner could be referred to being as “mad as a hatter.” This phrase came from the fact that in the 18th and 19th centuries, hat makers treated their products with mercury. Inhaling enough mercury vapor can cause mental illness.
• It is no fun “to be read the riot act.” In reality, this was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain, enacted Aug. 1, 1715, that authorized local authorities to declare any group of 12 or more people to be unlawfully assembled, and thus have to disperse within the hour or face punitive action. This act was not repealed until 1967.
• Red tape became synonymous with the complexities of bureaucracy because it was used (and still is in some instances) to tie up bundles of documents. In the 16th century, Henry VIII besieged Pope Clement VII with around 80 petitions for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The documents now reside in the Vatican archives, complete with their red ties.
• As most already know, a baker’s dozen means 13 of something. The saying is said to have come from the days when bakers were severely punished for baking underweight loaves. Some added an extra loaf to a batch to be above suspicion of pilfering.
• When someone declares “What the Dickens?” it has nothing to do with the writer Charles Dickens. This phrase has been around since at least the 16th century when “Dickens” was another popular name for Satan.
• A grumpy person may well have gotten up “on the wrong side of the bed.” According to Roman superstition, it is unlucky to get out of bed on the left side because that is where evil spirits dwell and to do so would cause the evil spirit to remain with the person throughout his or her waking hours. No wonder he or she is so grumpy!
• In general, pandemonium is a state of extreme confusion and upheaval. This comes from John Milton’s poem “Paradise Lost” where the chief city in Hell is Pandemonium. In Greek, the word means “all the devils.”
• When someone takes on a task he or she is incapable of or takes on more than can be accomplished successfully, that person is said to have “bitten off more than he can chew.” This Americanism probably refers to the offer of a bite from a plug of tobacco. A greedy man might naturally bite off as big a plug as possible, but then be unable to chew it comfortably.
• The die is cast and an irrevocable decision or step has been taken. The die in this phrase is the little-used singular term for dice. In gaming, once the die/dice is thrown, the player must accept the consequences, good or bad.
• A freelancer is somebody who is self-employed and is not committed to a particular employer long term. In the Middle Ages, soldiers fought for anyone who would hire them and were literally “free to lance.”
• Get out the flour and make some biscuits from scratch. The term “start from scratch” came from the time when a race of any sort was started from a line scratched in the ground/dirt.
• Have you ever bought something only to later discover it was a “white elephant”? In Siam (modern day Thailand), white or pale elephants were somewhat rare and considered valuable. The king sometimes gave a white elephant to a person he disliked. He would give this seemingly wonderful gift as punishment, knowing just how expensive was the animal’s upkeep.