skedaddle

“Skedaddle” means to run away, flee in a panic, retreat quickly. The origin is almost totally obscure. It first appears in the 1860s as American Civil War military slang. “As soon as the rebs saw our red breeches … coming through the woods they skedaddled.” There’s a hint there of cowardice under fire, but as the word gained popularity in…

Short Stack Three

Booby prize — prize  given as a joke to the last-place finisher in a competition Brainiac — a comic book supervillain (1938); a very intelligent person (1982) Heebie-jeebies — anxiety, apprehension, jitters, the willies (1920s) Dicing with death — taking serious risks (1940) Step up to the plate — accept a challenge (from baseball) It’s your nickel — it’s your…

tomfoolery

“Tomfoolery” means playful or silly behavior. The Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines “tomfool” as, “A clumsy, witless fool, fond of stupid practical jokes. Hence ‘tomfoolery.’” “Tomfoolery” is also the Cockney rhyming slang for jewelry. Like most rhyming slang it then gets shortened to Tom. For example: “That’s a nice bit of old tom she’s got round her neck.”…

willy-nilly

“Willy-nilly” has two meanings. The first is “whether it is with or against your will,” and the second, which we tend to use today, is “in an unplanned, haphazard fashion.” One of the first citations for “willy-nilly” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1608. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology says it’s a contraction of “will I, nill I”…

kibosh

To put the “kibosh” on something means put an end to; dispose of decisively; finish something off; reject. Several theories exist as to the origin of the word in the early 1800s. Stephen Goranson of the American Dialect Society has suggested that it may be from the Arabic qurbāsh, Turkish qirbāch, or French courbache, which is spelled as “kurbash” in…

Hand phrases #2

Dab hand — expert at a particular activity (1600s) Underhanded — done in a secret or dishonest way; sneaky Upper hand — power, control, dominance In hand — under control; in reserve At hand — nearby; imminent On hand — immediately available; close by Take in hand — to take control of or to lead  Get out of hand — to become chaotic and…

hand phrases #1

The word “hand” is used in many different ways in the language, just as we use our hands, those useful body tools, in many different ways. Here are some phrases and proverbs: All hands on deck — traditional nautical command for every sailor to report for duty; require everyone to work hard in order to achieve a particular aim  (1700s)…

shenanigans

“Shenanigans” means trickery, underhand action, intrigue, skulduggery, high-spirited behavior, or mischief. The earliest record of it is in San Francisco (April 25 issue of Town Talk) in 1855.  As to the source, word looks Irish, and there was no shortage of Irishmen working the California gold rush, so it’s reasonable to suggest the Irish word sionnachuighm as the source, meaning…

fuddy-duddy

“Fuddy-duddy” is a slang term for a stuffy, fussy, or foolishly old-fashioned person. It is mildly derogatory but sometimes affectionate too. The word has been used throughout the 1900s. Synonyms are “frump,” “school marm,” and “old fart.” The origin is uncertain, but “fuddy-duddy”may be American, possibly via Scotland. The first record appears to be from the Texas newspaper The Galveston…

hullabaloo

“Hullabaloo” means a loud uproar, mixture of noises, din, commotion. Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) has it as “hellabaloo,” meaning riotous noise and confusion, and says it is provincial in England. The word originated in the 1700s, though no one knows exactly where it came from. The word has been spelled in so many ways that “hullabaloo” has to be…