Column: Words don’t always mean what they say

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You probably never noticed, but we say a lot of things that don’t really mean what they imply.  For example, I was “under the weather” last week, which meant I had a case of the summer grumpies complete with chills and fever.

The actual meaning goes back to our seafaring days when sailing ships found themselves slogging through storms. The watch officer maintained high alert during such times because savage winds at sea could wreak havoc on a sailing vessel.

To “beat the tar out of” something doesn’t really refer to corporal punishment. Sheep farmers sometimes nick a sheep while sheering, and dab the cut with a bit of tar to help it heal. Later, they have to pound on the hardened tar to break it loose from the wool. Even so, I can think of a couple of prankish kids that needed the tar beaten out of them on occasion.

There are many ways “to skin a cat,” we’re told. I mentioned that to my five-year-old daughter once, and later found her snuggled in bed with her cat under the covers to keep me from skinning it.

The term actually refers to skinning a catfish, which arguably has the toughest hide on anything that swims. While I have skinned my fair share of catfish, I don’t recall anyone offering alternative methods for doing it.

Anyone who “starts from scratch” probably works in a bakery, since “from scratch” pastries are what we think of when we hear the phrase. And if I think on it for more than five minutes, it usually sends me on a trip to the goodies department at the grocery.

The term actually had its origin in track and field. In the old days, foot race officials would handicap a race by scratching a line in the ground further back as a start point for faster runners.

“At the drop of a hat” always meant someone was eager for a fight. Close enough. In the old west, formal duels started when someone dropped a hat. Hopalong Cassidy never did it that way. He just blazed away until the bad guys hightailed it out of town. And “hightailing it” refers to the way frightened deer raise their tails when running away.

Everybody knows that to “kick the bucket” means, well, to kick the bucket. Except a “bucket” originally was a special pulley used in slaughterhouses. I prefer the newer version. In the movie, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” Jimmy Durante wrecks his car, and literally kicks a nearby bucket as he breathes his last.

And any sailor who gets soaked to the skin riding out a storm will probably will wind up “under the weather.”


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