October 1, 2013

Flying by the Seat of My Pants – PUBLISHER’S CORNER

By Eloise Graham

Sitting around the coffee table with friends, the conversation turned to the Publisher’s Corner and me. Where did my ideas come from? After some lively chatting, someone blurted out, “She just flies by the seat of her pants.” I thought I knew what that meant. Maybe haphazardly, without a plan, making it up as I went along… Well, I decided to look the saying up. I was close; it means to “decide a course of action as you go along, using your own initiative and perceptions rather than a pre-determined plan or mechanical aids.”*

This saying originated in the 1930s and was referenced to pilots who flew without a lot of navigational aids. They depended upon their own judgment. The term became widespread when pilot Douglas (Wrong Way) Corrigan flew from the USA to Ireland in 1938. The headlines of one of the accounts read “Corrigan Flies By The Seat Of His Pants.”

Well, this got me wondering, what other nonsensical sayings do we use quite often but have no idea as to their origin? How about “by the skin of your teeth?” This means to barely escape. This phrase first appeared translated into English in 1560; taken from the Geneva Bible from Job 19:20, the literal translation from Hebrew into Old English is “I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe.”[sic]* Since teeth don’t have skin, the writer may have been using this thought to explain how minute a measure of the film on the surface of the teeth might be.

Another saying that has a similar meaning, but doesn’t really make sense is “saved by the bell.” It has nothing to do with trying to come up with an answer for a teacher’s question and the school bell rings – thus you have a reprieve from having to answer. No, it is a little more physical than that. It is a boxing term that came into being in the late 1800s. In 1893, boxer Martin Flaherty defeated Bobby Burns by a knockout in the 32nd round. Flaherty had been “saved by the bell” a half a dozen times in earlier rounds. This was reported using the term in a Massachusetts paper and thus the saying was born. There seems to be a widespread notion that the phrase is from the 17th century, and it describes people being saved from being buried alive by using a coffin with a bell attached. The idea being that, if they were buried but later revived, they could ring the bell and be saved from an unpleasant death. The idea is certainly plausible, so much so that there were patented “Improved Burial Cases” registered from the mid 1800s to 1955. However, research seems to substantiate the boxing reference over the coffin reference.

Another term, “dead ringer” is also a widespread notion that it, too, has something to do with a presumed dead person ringing the bell to inform others that he is not really dead. That is a misconception. “Dead ringer” is a horse racing term. It means an exact duplicate. A ringer is a horse that is substituted for another of similar appearance in order to defraud the bookies. The exact definition taken from the Manitoba Free Press from October 1882 says: A horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree is called a ”ringer.” The ‘dead’ part comes from our casual use of ‘dead’ meaning exact or precise as in ‘dead shot,’‘dead center,’ or ‘dead heat.’ So ‘dead ringer’ means ‘exact duplicate.’

Here are some more phrases and perhaps their origin:

Break the Ice: to commence a project or initiate a friendship. Origin: Before the days of trains or cars, port cities that thrived on trade suffered during the winter because frozen rivers prevented commercial ships from entering the city. Small ships known as “icebreakers” would rescue the icebound ships by breaking the ice and creating a path for them to follow. Before any type of business arrangement today, it is now customary “break the ice” before beginning a new project.

Butter Someone Up: to flatter someone. Origin: An ancient Indian custom involved throwing balls of clarified butter at statues of the gods to seek their favor.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water: hang on to valuable things when getting rid of unnecessary things. Origin: During the 1500s, most people bathed once a year. Even when they did bathe, the entire family used the same tubful of water. The man of the house bathed first, followed by other males, then females, and finally the babies. You can imagine how thick and cloudy the water became by that time, so the infants’ mothers had to take care not to throw them out with the bathwater when they emptied the tub.

Upper crust: means the elite. Origin: Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle and the guests got the top, or the upper crust.

Go the Whole 9 Yards: is to try one’s best. Origin: World War II Fighter pilots received a 9-yard chain of ammunition. Therefore, when a pilot used all of his ammunition on one target, he gave it “the whole 9 yards.”

Jaywalker: one who crosses the street in a reckless or illegal manner. Origin: Jaybirds that traveled outside of the forest into urban areas often became confused and unaware of the potential dangers in the city – like traffic. Amused by their erratic behavior, people began using the term “Jaywalker” to describe someone who crossed the street irresponsibly.

Kick the Bucket: means to die. Origin: When a cow was killed at a slaughterhouse, a bucket was placed under it while it was positioned on a pulley. Sometimes the animal’s legs would kick during the adjustment of the rope and it would literally kick the bucket before being killed.

Spill the Beans: to reveal a secret. Origin: In Ancient Greece, beans were used to vote for candidates entering various organizations. One container for each candidate was set out before the group members, who would place a white bean in the container if they approved of the candidate and a black bean if they did not. Sometimes a clumsy voter would accidentally knock over the jar, revealing all of the beans and allowing everyone to see the otherwise confidential votes.

* from The Phrase Finder at www.phrases.org.uk

Filed Under: History, Humor