Years ago I was in church watching an organist perform, and as he reached a feverish crescendo in the piece I said to myself, “Wow, he’s really pulling out all the stops.” It was only at that moment that I realized this was the literal origin of that particular figure of speech. Every time I had used the phrase “pull out all the stops” before that moment, I had been treating it as a single lumped-together word whose meaning I understood but whose derivation was unknown and unsought.
A figure of speech is a sort of lumped word once it comes unhinged from its source. “Hook, line, and sinker” is easy enough for anyone to work out; “lock, stock, and barrel” is somewhat more puzzling. And when someone speaks of their “salad days“, what are they talking about? You can picture someone being tarred and feathered, but if you say someone has been drawn and quartered, do you realize how gruesome the image is you’re calling up? And is the phrase you’re on the verge of saying “cut and dried” or “cut and try”?
All the links in the phrases above point to The Phrase Finder, a fun reference on the origins and correct usage of phrases. Use the Phrase Finder and avoid lumpy language. For instance, if you like the phrase “rule of thumb“, you should look up its origin (or perhaps its supposed origin) and see if you still like it…
2 thoughts on “Lumped words and their sources”
i’ve always hated rule of thumb. but i was getting coffee with j the other day and said it was a red letter day because my favorite pastry was there. he had no idea where that came from. i always loved that phrase because it makes me think of people who are trudging through life looking at the calendar with excitement for the next holiday.
Love this stuff….Have you checked out Bill Bryson’s “Made in America”? Great informal history of the “Ameican” language, with all the usual humour he throws in. I made it about 80% through, but then left my sister-in-law’s(it was her book).
Just noticed he had another book “The Mother Tongue”…more English language diessection and how the language has chnaged over the centuries. (I swear this guy found so much information researching one book, he had to write another lest it go to waste.)
Anyway, I would reccomend Bryson to anyone..I’m shameless in promoting him, because he genuinely appears to love what he does and wants other s to enjoy it too.
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