Word Origins and Phrase Origins to Make You Smarter

knuckled under

Ever “knuckled under” to someone’s demands or to the pressure? Ever wonder how someone could make you do something just by using their knuckles? There actually is some disagreement on how this particular term originated.

According to one theory, the term has to do with an old custom involving striking one’s knuckles underneath a table as a way of admitting defeat in an argument. Another origin story has it that the word knuckles originally referred to knee joints as well as finger joints and so knuckling under was a reference to bowing down on your knees before a master or one who had conquered you. Either way, you’re coming away with bruises on some part of your body.

“humble pie”

Have you eaten any “humble pie” lately? I have. Well, I’ve eaten Godfather Pizza’s Humble Pie pizza and that’s good eats, with apologies to Alton Brown. I hope I won’t have to eat humble pie if my story of the origin of this phrase turns out to be untrue. From what I’ve learned, the origin goes back to the Dark Ages and has to do with the fine art of British deer hunting.

Apparently, one of the many lords of the manor-types returned from a deer hunting expedition and feasted merrily and well on the best parts of the deer, the parts commonly used to make venison. His servants, however, were left with the heart, liver, guts and other rather unenviable parts of the animal. In other words, the humble parts of the deer. They made a pie from these parts and, more importantly, made a phrase that has lasted for centuries, though it remains to be seen if common usage of it will make through the end of this century.

“at the drop of a hat”

This next phrase origin could be explained “at the drop of a hat,” but I’ll make it quick. It used to be that many sporting events from horse races to prizefights were commenced not upon the shooting of a gun or the ringing of a bell, but the dropping of a hat. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

“better half”

Is your “better half” really and truly your better half or are you just giving him or her lip service? Like so many wonderfully ingenious, artfully creative turns of phrase, this one can be traced back to the Puritans. (I kid, of course. I kid because I love.) The Puritans–God bless those witchhunting religious nutjobs–identified a certain duality in humanity. We were made up of body and soul and guess which was our better half? No, wrong! It was the soul. The writer Philip Sidney copped the phrase sometime in the sixteenth century and began its application to the holy blessed union of marriage, which by the way was never identified as a union of specific genders. But I digress. Anyhoo, by the eighteenth century, his usage of the term had all but obliterated its original meaning.

“I’ll eat my hat”

You know, I actually once saw someone “eat their hat.” I don’t want to get into details and because it didn’t come out well in the end…if you get my drift. Anyway, what on earth is that supposed to mean when someone says blah-blah-blah or I’ll eat my hat? Well, I’ll tells ya. It actually has nothing at all to do with headwear so my unfortunate friend could have saved himself a whole load of trouble if he’d read this first. Such a literal guy, he is.

This dates back to those crazy Olde English with their wild propensity for homonyms. Such merry pranksters they were. What the term refers to is actually something called a “hatte.” And what, pray tell, was a hatte? And why would someone want to eat it? A hatte was a dish containing eggs, veal, dates, and spices. Frankly, from that description I’m not completely sure why anyone would want to it. In fact, I’m not at all convinced that I wouldn’t rather eat a fedora after all.

“call me on the carpet”

I just know that someone is going to “call me on the carpet” for a mistake I made in this series of articles. I wonder if it makes it easier if you get called on the red carpet? Nah, probably not. Actually, the origin of this phrase seems up for grabs. There are several different interpretations, but the one which seems to carry the most weight in terms of showing up the most often has to do with the relative expense of carpeting so that only bosses or business owners had carpeting in their offices. When an employee was called in for a reprimand to the boss’ office, he was in essence being called in to the only room with carpeting. I don’t know, frankly this one seems a little thin to me, but I guess it makes as much sense as any of the other explanations.