kowtow

“Kowtow” is a Chinese word. It means to act in a subservient manner, to fawn, as in kneeling and touching the forehead to the ground in token of worship, or deep respect. Kowtow originated as a salute or act of worship to authority and became a custom by 200 BCE. In traditional China the ritual was performed by commoners making…

on the lam

“On the lam” is slang for running away, since roughly the late 1800s. The root of “lam” is the Old Norse lamja, meaning “to make lame,” and the original meaning of “lam,” when it first appeared in English in the 1500s, was “to beat soundly.”  “Lame” is from the same source, as is “lambaste,” which today means to scold or…

lead pipe cinch

lead pipe cinch A “lead pipe cinch” is a sure thing, or something easy to accomplish. “Cinch” comes from the Spanish word for a horse’s saddle-girth — cincha. A saddle that had been tightly cinched was secure or had a firm grip. The figurative sense of cinch was first recorded from the 1870s as meaning to get the better of…

honky-tonk

“Honky-tonk” is a cheap or disreputable bar, club, or dance hall, typically where country music is played. It’s also ragtime piano music. Lyrics tended to focus on working-class life, with frequently tragic themes of lost love, adultery, loneliness, alcoholism, and self-pity. Honky-tonks are common in the South and Southwest US. Many eminent country music artists, such as Jimmie Rodgers, Loretta…

hootenanny

A “hootenanny” is an informal gathering with folk music and sometimes dancing. The word is a colloquialism that was used in the early 1900s Appalachia, a region heavily settled by Scottish immigrants. Hootenanny is a Scottish word for party or celebration.  In modern times, the word most commonly refers to a folk music party with an open mic, at which…

January word herd

Slumgullion — originally, food that was liquid, semi-liquid, or muddy. Now it means a cheap or insubstantial meat stew. Mark Twain, in Roughing It, 1872, says, “Then he poured for us a beverage which he called ‘Slum gullion,’ and it is hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really pretended to be tea, but there…

hubris

 “Hubris” is exaggerated pride or self-confidence, often combined with arrogance. Hubris is usually perceived as a characteristic of an individual rather than a group and it often indicates a loss of contact with reality and overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities. It also indicates a lack of humility and sometimes ignorance. Arrogance is the feeling that one has…

goldbrick

As a noun, a “goldbrick” is a worthless brick that appears to be made of gold. As a verb, “goldbrick” means a person who shirks assigned work. The original “gold brick” was of pure gold metal, melted and molded into brick form for convenience in handling. But, around the mid-1800s, some Western promoters of mining properties began to create lead…

high on the hog

Living “high on the hog” means enjoying affluence and luxury. One might assume that this phrase originated hundreds of years ago. It’s easy to picture nobility dining on roasted suckling pig or boar, while the peasants made do with pig’s feet. However, the phrase is not found in print until the 1900s in the US. The word “high,” however, has…

hoi polloi

“Hoi polloi” comes from Greek, and means, literally, “the many” or “the people.” In English, it has a negative connotation to signify the masses, the plebeians, the rabble, the riffraff, and the proles (proletariat). In his Funeral Oration, as mentioned in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles uses the phrase in a positive way when praising the Athenian democracy,…