Inspired by Julie Paschkis (one of my Books Around the Table co-conspirators) questioning how the phrase “And how!” might have come into existence, I spent a wonderful afternoon looking at websites which trace the origin of strange phrases in English. If one person says to another, “Pistachio ice cream is the best ice cream on the planet!” and the other responds “And how!” you have to scratch your head and wonder about that (well, you don’t have to, but if you’re a writer with any curiosity about your language, you probably do.) How on earth did “And how!” come to mean “Absolutely! Amen to that!” Nothing on the surface of the phrase – definitions or etymologies of individual words, for example – explains it. So I scratched my head and began to explore.
There’s no doubt anymore, thanks to the internet, that if I wonder about something, many other people have wondered about it, too. I googled “origins” and “phrases” and “English” and in less time than it takes to blink (7/10ths of one second, to be precise) I had 68,500,000 hits. Granted, not all the hits would tell me about the curious origins of English phrases, but even if I only looked at a millionth of them, I would have a nice 68 to spend my day on.
Websites from Bored Panda to the Oxford Royale Academy (that’s quite a spread, yes?) have posted articles about phrase origins. Ever scratched your head and wondered about the following?
- “Pleased as punch….” The word “punch” used to be capitalized, as far back as the 1600’s, because it came from the Punch and Judy puppet shows, where two puppets fought it out in front of a delighted audience. Punch was a mean cuss, always playing tricks on Judy or banging on her head with a stick, and he always took pleasure doing it. I found the long literary history of the phrase (back to Charles !! of England, who – in 1662 – ordered a command performance of the puppet show from an Italian puppeteer known by the alias Pollicinella) at a site called Idiomation: Historically Speaking. Punch and Judy were also the origin of the words “punch line” and “slapstick.” If you head over there after this, be sure to read about the woman who researches and writes the entries – her own history is impressive.
- “Go haywire…” I love this phrase, maybe because I know how it feels to do it? Here’s what Mental Floss says about it in their list of 16 curious phrases: “What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the ‘messed up’ sense of the word.”
- “The whole shebang….” Another favorite phrase of mine. Mental Floss is less sure of the origin of this, but says, “The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.” That sounds right to me, especially given how many Irish were coming to America before and during the Civil War.
- “Minding your P’s and Q’s…” Speaking of drinking establishments, P’s and Q’s refer to pints and quarts, which barmaids had to keep track of serving so that the bills would be correct. To mind your p’s and q’s means to get things right, to be careful and do what you should be doing. You can find it in the list of curious phrases over at Owlcation, a site of “engineers, product and community advocates, moderators, and editors that are passionate about writing and online know-how. In addition to our official team, we are a tight-knit community of thousands of writers and enthusiasts.” If you visit, you’ll see articles as diverse as “The Many Uses of Cow Dung” and “The Moon Rabbit in Legend and Culture.”
- “Mad as a hatter….” You might think you know the origin of this one. But according to Grammarly, “No, you didn’t already know this one, because it didn’t originate from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries — well before Lewis Carroll’s book was published. In 17th century France, poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury for the hat felt. The ‘Mad Hatter Disease’ was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear ‘mad.'”
- I’m going to end here and say toodle-oo. If you want to know where “toodle-oo” came from, you’ll be astounded by the length of the article about it over at The Phrase Finder.