Category: phrase sources

bafflegab

“Bafflegab” means confusing, bureaucratic, incomprehensible jargon; gobbledegook, or pretentious verbiage. And yes, we know where this one came from, thanks to World Wide Words. On January 19, 1952, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that an award in the form of a plaque had been presented to Milton A Smith, to honor his creation of the new and invaluable word. Mr.…

butter someone up

“To butter someone up” is to flatter or be nice to someone in order to get something from them. “Flatter” is a synonym, since it means to seek a favor by excessive praise. There are two possible origins of this idiom. Some people believe that it comes from actually spreading smooth, creamy butter on a slice of bread which can…

tommyrot and guff

“Tommyrot” means foolishness, twaddle, or nonsense, pretentious or silly talk or writing. In 1700s military English, “tommy” was a nickname for the poor-quality bread doled out to soldiers as part of their rations. “Tommy-rot” was rotten bread, and, because it was worthless, spoiled beyond use, eventually came to mean “nonsense” in Victorian slang. The Oxford English Dictionary says it was…

dogwood

In honor of BC day, August 1, I want to tell you about BC’s provincial flower, the dogwood. It’s one of my favorite trees, though I’d have to admit that most trees are my favorites. However, I promise not to go all botanical on you. Wikipedia says that the Pacific, or mountain, dogwood, is a species native to western North…

argle-bargle

 “Argle” appears in the late 1500s and means to argue obstinately, to wrangle, possibly a popular perversion of “argue,” or confusion of that word with “haggle.” “Argle-bargle” is Scottish and first appeared in 1808 in Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Tongue. A close variant, “aurgle-bargain,” dates all the way back to 1720. The Scots seem to have a penchant…

good riddance

To say, “good riddance” means you’re feeling a welcome relief from unpleasant company or an annoying situation, which could be anything from a bad cold to Aunt Bessie.  “Riddance” is a word that is no longer used except in this particular expression. In the 1500s a “riddance” was a general-purpose noun and meant “deliverance from” or “getting rid of.”  Shakespeare…

discombobulate

“Discombobulate” means to embarrass, disturb, confuse, befuddle, or disconcert. The word originated in the US and appeared in 1834. It’s a fanciful mock-Latin coinage of a type that was popular at the time. Here are some other examples: confusticate — confuse (1852)  absquatulate — flee (1840)  spifflicate — confound (1850)  scrumplicate — eat (1890) The Oxford English Dictionary cites an…

stinking rich

“Stinking rich” means extremely, offensively, disgustingly rich. The word “stink,” has Germanic roots, and did not originally indicate an unpleasant aroma. In Old English, it meant to produce an odor of any kind, pleasant as well as unpleasant. Soon, however, “stink” narrowed to mean “to give off a strong offensive smell,” and by the 1200s “stink” took on the figurative…

shim sham

When I published the piece on “flim-flam” about two weeks ago, a friend commented on it and asked if “shim-sham” meant the same thing. I’d never heard of “shim-sham” so naturally I had to look it up. Turns out it doesn’t mean a scam or a hustle or a bamboozle. It’s the name of a dance! The shim sham shimmy,…

skulduggery

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “skulduggery” means underhand dealing, deceptive intrigue or machination and trickery. It gives several forms of the spelling. The OED even has it as a verb — to skuldug, and quotes William Faulkner using it in 1936. This is an 18th century Scottish word, originally spelled “sculdudrie,” that refers to an indecent act, usually sexual…