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The "elephant in the room" is something obvious that can't be overlooked, even if no one is talking about it. The phrase was in use as early as 1935. (iStockphoto.com)

Dictionary Of Idioms Gets Everybody On The Same Page

by NPR Staff
Feb 28, 2013 (Morning Edition)

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If you've ever shot the breeze, had a heart-to-heart or bent somebody's ear — in fact, if you've ever talked at all — odds are you've used an idiom. These sometimes bizarre phrases are a staple of conversation, and more than 10,000 of them are collected in the latest edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, which came out this week.

The new volume contains hundreds of new entries. Author Christine Ammer tells NPR's Renee Montagne that idioms are added to the book based on how commonly they're used. "I usually go by the frequency with which I hear them used and where I see them used in print," she says. "There are some that simply jump out at you because they're used so often, even though they may be of very early provenance."

While some of the new entries might seem modern — "couch potato," "elephant in the room," "comfort food" — many are surprisingly old expressions. A particularly large number date back to the Elizabethan era: Shakespeare was a prolific inventor of phrases and gave birth to numerous idioms still used today.

Ammer shares the surprising origins of some idioms and explains why it's hard for her to pick a favorite.


Interview Highlights

On "the American dream" and "pie in the sky"

"With all the talk about immigration these days, you hear about 'the American dream,' but what is the American dream and where did that come from? Well, 'the American dream' ... actually originated [in] Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, which was published in 1835, but the term may be even of earlier origin. And it's the notion that living in the United States would enable prosperity. Of course, to some extent this becomes 'pie in the sky,' another Americanism ...

" 'Pie in the sky' comes from a song that was written by the WW [Industrial Workers of the World] — the Wobblies, they were called, an early American union — in 1911. It was a rallying song, and it [went], 'Work and pray, live on hay, you'll get pie in the sky when you die.' And of course that was taken up as an idiom to mean an empty wish or promise. What good is pie in the sky? You want something here."

On idioms that are older than they seem

"An interesting one like that is 'no pain, no gain,' which you think of as a sports thing. Your personal trainer might say, 'You've got to work out hard. No pain, no gain.' And that actually goes back all the way to 1500 and appeared in a dictionary of proverbs about a hundred years after that, so that's really unusual.

" 'Not a dry eye in the house': You'd think of that in the theater or in a very sentimental movie or something. That goes all the way back to the 16th century and has been in English since the 1500s. It was in a biography of [King Henry VIII's Cardinal Thomas Wolsey].

"[Shakespeare] made up 'cold fish' ... and it had the same meaning in Shakespeare as it does today: somebody who's very hardhearted, not sentimental at all."

On idioms that have changed in meaning over time

" 'A close shave,' apparently, is a changed meaning. ... It alludes to the narrow margin between closely shaved skin and a razor cut. And this latter usage [replaced] the much earlier equation of 'a close shave,' [which] used to be identified as miserliness, based on the idea that a close shave by a barber meant one would not have to spend much money on another shave quite so soon.

" 'Think tank': That meant something else too, once — and that's a fairly new one. Around 1900 it was a facetious colloquialism to mean brain, your own brain. So that's your think tank. And it was given its new meaning around 1950."

On idioms with political origins

" 'To go the whole hog,' meaning to do the whole thing, first appeared in a letter from Daniel Webster. At the time he was a Massachusetts senator, and he was saying that Andrew Jackson will either go along with the party or he'll go the whole hog — he will do it all ...

" 'To keep the ball rolling' came from William Henry Harrison's [presidential] campaign in 1840, where a huge decorated ball was rolled out in his political parades. And again, that's used very generally."

On picking her favorite idiom

"I'll give it a shot. I do like 'bad hair day,' because I often have trouble with that. 'Control freak' — actually, the 'freak' in that comes from the idea that freak meant enthusiastic, an enthusiast, and the freak part of it, I am a word freak, and I am enthusiastic about words and expressions.

"It's hard, you know, these are like my children, and with 10,000 children it's very, very hard to pick a favorite."

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More Idiom Backstories

Birthday suit In 18th-century England, this term referred to the clothes one wore on the king's birthday. Later the phrase was jocularly used to refer to the clothing a baby wore on the day of its own birth — that is, nakedness.
Mind one's p's and q's This term for "practicing good manners" was first recorded in 1779, but its origin is disputed. One theory cites bartenders who kept track of a customer's bill in terms of pints and quarts, so a conscientious barkeep would "mind" them; in another, children had to be careful to distinguish the mirror-image letters "p" and "q"; in yet another, French dancing masters cautioned pupils to correctly perform the figures "pieds" and "queues," abbreviated or mispronounced into the English letters "p" and "q."
Get on the bandwagon In the second half of the 1800s, a bandwagon, or horse-drawn wagon carrying a brass band, would accompany candidates on their campaign tours. Eventually the term was extended so that "getting on the bandwagon" meant supporting a campaign or joining a cause.
Dead cat bounce This term for a quick but short-lived recovery originated in the 1980s. It referred to stock that would rapidly increase in price, but then return to its low price after speculators resold it. Why a "dead cat"? Because if you throw a dead cat at a wall, it will bounce, all right — but it will still be dead.
Pass the buck This poker-related idiom refers to shifting responsibility or blame. It originated in the mid-1800s practice of passing around a piece of buckshot, or another object, to remind a player that he would be dealing next. The current meaning was established around 1900.
Steal someone's thunder This idiom for appropriating someone else's idea comes from an actual incident in the early 18th century. Playwright John Dennis rattled a sheet of tin to create a "thunder machine" for his play Appius and Virginia. A few days later, he heard the device used during a performance of Macbeth, leading him to exclaim, "They steal my thunder!"
Adapted from The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Second Edition.

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