Bees' Knees and Barmy Armies: Origins of the Words and Phrases We Use Every Day

Bees' Knees and Barmy Armies: Origins of the Words and Phrases We Use Every Day

by Harry Oliver, Mike Mosedale

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What makes someone "pleased as punch?" Why is New York City called "The Big Apple?" And what does it mean to escape by the "skin of your teeth?" Every day speech is peppered with hundreds of phrases and expressions, but rarely are their origins contemplated. This intriguing survey delves deep into the history behind hundreds of common words and turns of phrase and


What makes someone "pleased as punch?" Why is New York City called "The Big Apple?" And what does it mean to escape by the "skin of your teeth?" Every day speech is peppered with hundreds of phrases and expressions, but rarely are their origins contemplated. This intriguing survey delves deep into the history behind hundreds of common words and turns of phrase and uncovers their fascinating and amusing sources. From ancient idioms to up-to-the minute lingo, this is the perfect resource for etymologists and language-lovers alike.

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Bees' Knees and Barmy Armies

By Harry Oliver

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2008 Harry Oliver
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85782-946-4




While most of us are familiar with the charms of alcohol, there was a time when only the fairer sex would have been well acquainted with it. The word comes from the Arabic al kohl, meaning a fine black powder used for eye make-up. Now time for the science: this powder was formed by sublimation (transforming a solid to a vapour) and then recooling back to a solid. The word entered the English language in the sixteenth century, with the definite article assumed to be part of the word, giving alcohol, which described any extremely fine powder. Subsequently it came to mean any fluid obtained through distillation. One such essence, alcohol of wine, and the spirit of any fermented liquor, became the best known of these and is the alcohol we know, love (and sometimes hate!) today.


To have, or go on, a 'blowout' is to leave behind restraint and consume vast quantities of food, especially rich food of the kind you wouldn't eat every day. Certainly most of us experience the results of a blowout over the festive period. The phrase originally described a huge indulgent feast, quite crudely illustrating the swelling of the belly. In more recent times the meaning has extended to describe throwing caution to the wind and overindulging in other things, such as alcohol.

Different Kettle of Fish

'Now that's a different kettle of fish,' we sometimes say when drawing a distinction between one matter and another. But we may be unaware that the phrase 'kettle of fish' has been around for centuries, and that when preceded by adjectives such as 'fine', 'nice' or 'pretty', the phrase was once used ironically to mean an awful mess. It seems that 'different kettle' grew out of 'fine kettle'. But why kettles, and why fish?

In the eighteenth century, long before the days of Russell and Hobbs, a kettle was any vessel used for boiling things up in, so it wasn't considered odd to fill a kettle with fish, especially if you lived near the River Tweed, close to the border between England and Scotland. Aristocrats used to hold picnics there, a practice commented upon by Thomas Newte in his Tour of England and Scotland in 1785: 'It is customary for the gentlemen who live near the Tweed to entertain their neighbours and friends with a Fête champêtre, which they call giving "a kettle of fish". Tents or marquees are pitched near the flowery banks of the river ... a fire is kindled, and live salmon thrown into boiling kettles.' So it seems there were many fine kettles of fish to be had back then, and we can only assume that, now and again, it all went wrong – perhaps all those salmon would spill out of the kettle, maybe the kettle would boil over, or the fish tasted ghastly. In any case, such messy errors could well have led to the birth of the sardonic expression 'That's a fine kettle of fish'.

This is all very well, but it remains a bit of a mystery how our modern usage of the phrase developed. My guess is that to say 'a different kettle of fish' became a way of distinguishing between a messy thing and something less chaotic – after all, a ruined kettle of fish would have contrasted strongly with a perfect one.


The grocer that we know today was originally a wholesaler, a grossier, selling the likes of tea, coffee, spices and dried fruits in bulk, or by the gross (meaning 144, from the French gros, big), to the vendor. The merchant who actually sold these goods to customers was known as a spicer. There is some confusion about when exactly the word 'grocer' took on its present meaning, but it may have been as early as the fourteenth century.


A strong, illicitly distilled and distributed liquor, hooch is often also described as 'bootleg' (because bottles were hidden in boot legs) or 'moonshine' (because it was usually made at night). When the USA purchased Alaska in 1867 it made the sale of alcohol in the territory illegal. The local Tlingit Indians, living in a village called Hoochinoo, began making their own alcoholic drink. When the Alaskan gold rush started during the 1890s, the name was shortened to 'hooch', and it came to mean any poor-quality illegal alcoholic beverage. Incidentally, 'hooch' is the only Tlingit Indian word to make it into the English language.

Ice-cream Sundae

The dish of ice cream covered in chocolate began life in America, and a charming story lies behind it. The origin of this sweet treat dates back to 1881, when chocolate sauce was used to make ice-cream sodas at Ed Berners' soda fountain in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. One day a man named George Hallauer asked him to put some of the chocolate sauce over a dish of ice cream. In a 1929 interview Berners said he'd been unsure if it was a good idea and protested. But Hallauer answered, 'I'll try anything once,' and got his way. A new concoction was born, and it soon became very popular.

Berners started experimenting with different flavours and fancy names. He credits the term 'Sunday' to another ice-cream parlour in nearby Manitowoc. Seeing the popularity of the dish in Two Rivers, owner George Giffy began selling the ice creams with toppings – but only on Sundays. Everything changed when a ten-year-old girl insisted on having a bowl of ice cream 'with that stuff on top'. It wasn't a Sunday, so George told her she couldn't have one. 'This must be Sunday,' replied the girl, 'for it is the kind of ice cream I want!' Giffy gave in and started selling the ice-cream treat every day, but called it a 'Sunday'. The origin of the odd spelling is a little obscure, but the story goes that a glass salesman, when writing up an order for the canoe-shaped bowls in which Berners served his ice-cream Sunday, misspelled 'Sunday' as 'Sundae'. Another theory is that the spelling was altered out of respect for Sunday's religious significance.


Lager is light-coloured, fizzy beer, more correctly called 'lager beer'. Literally, the word means a beer which is intended for storage, as lager is German for 'a store'. It has been in use in English since the 1850s.


The origin of the lollipop is uncertain, but one theory points to the term 'lolly' being an eighteenth-century word used in the north of England to mean 'mouth'. Accordingly, a lollipop was something that one 'popped' into the mouth. The term has been around since the mid-1700s, but originally it did not necessarily mean a hard candy mounted on a stick. The stick popped up at the turn of the twentieth century.


A tumbler is a short drinks glass, and all modern tumblers are designed so that they can be placed on a surface without tumbling over, which begs the question: why 'tumbler'? The answer is simple: in the seventeenth century the original glasses known as tumblers had bases that were either rounded or pointed. Naturally this made it impossible to put them down without 'tumbling' them. Some sources suggest that it was the glass-making practices of the day that prevented the glass bottoms from being flat, but this is untrue, as other perfectly functional styles of glass already existed. The truth is that the glassed were made purposely so that drinkers had to finish their drinks before setting down the glass – with obvious benefit to booze-vendors of the era.

Welsh Rabbit/Rarebit

If you order this in a restaurant expecting to have a bunny from Wales cooked to perfection and brought to your table, you will be sorely disappointed. For Welsh Rabbit, or Rarebit, has nothing to do with the twitchy-nosed little beasts – it is no more than cheese on toast with mustard. The term has been in use since the eighteenth century, and is said to have been invented as a dig at the Welsh. Back then Wales was very poor, with most people unable to afford a nice piece of meat for their evening meal. Cheese was seen by the poor as the best meat substitute for meat. Joke against the Welsh or not, Welsh Rabbit is a tasty snack and you don't have to shoot it before you cook it.

Whole Shebang

Meaning everything, or the lot, 'the whole shebang' is a curious phrase. The problem with tracing its origin is that nobody seems to have a clue what a shebang is. Some postulate that it comes from shebeen, an Irish word for an unlicenced drinking den, or speakeasy. The vaguely humorous notion that the phrase was borne out of a drunken Irishman's tendency to try to take on 'the whole shebang' – i.e. everyone enjoying an illegal drink in the bar – has little to support it. Mark Twain first used the word in print in 1869, but, like other phrases that begin with 'the whole' ('box of dice', 'enchilada', 'nine yards'), it seems the object is only there to make a catchy phrase, and this only works if we divorce its literal meaning from its metaphorical one.



Big Shot

Used to refer to a particularly important person, this twentieth-century phrase developed out of the previous century's 'big gun', which meant the same thing. A shot is a missile for a cannon or gun, and rather obviously a 'big shot', like an important person, is going to be more powerful than lesser weapons.


In 1829 Louis Braille, a blind French musician, refined this method of communication and arrived at the reading and writing system for the blind that we know today. Braille originates from an earlier, more primitive system which was actually designed to facilitate night writing by Napoleon's army. The raised bumps on the paper could be interpreted in the dark without need for a light and so exposure of the soldier to enemy snipers was avoided.

Fifth Column

A fifth column is a clandestine group of subversive agents working to undermine a larger group, particularly a nation. The phrase was coined in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War (1936–9), by the Nationalist General Emilio Mola. When he was leading four army columns against Madrid he described, in a radio address, his 'fifth column' within the city, composed of sympathisers intent on overthrowing the Republicans from within. Various conflicts since then have seen the expression used again, including the Second World War and the Gulf War.

Go Off Half-cocked

When something 'goes off half-cocked' it's the unsatisfactory, or worse, result of premature action, usually taken on the spur of the moment without proper preparation. The expression is rooted in the eighteenth century and, unsurprisingly, alludes to guns. A gun at 'half-cock' is effectively in the safety position, with the hammer only cocked halfway so that it cannot be fired.

Some sources claim that the phrase derives from a hunter aiming his rifle at his prey, firing and then realising his weapon was half-cocked and that he has done nothing but make a fool of himself. But this explanation doesn't account for the 'going off' part of the expression. More likely is the idea that the guns in the eighteenth century certainly weren't as reliable as they are today, and often a half-cocked firearm would discharge by accident. This idea not only fits better but more fully explains the potentially terrible repercussions of 'going off half-cocked'.

Gung Ho

Meaning very eager, zealous or enthusiastic, a 'gung ho approach' is something we tend to consider rather bullish and unwise. The adjective derives from the Chinese kung ho, meaning to work together, and during the Second World War it was embraced by United States' Marines and even became the motto of 'Carlson's Raiders,' the nickname for a guerrilla unit of soldiers serving in the Pacific region under General Evans Carlson. The phrase spread throughout the Marines, and into wider American society with the release in 1943 of the war film Gung Ho!, which told the story of Carlson's Raiders. It was Carlson's sometimes irresponsible and careless approach that led to the phrase being used ironically and negatively.

Hit the Ground Running

We use this upbeat phrase to signify a snappy and successful start to an event or enterprise. It's often said that the phrase originated in either the First or the Second World War. The story goes that, in order to prepare them for the realities of combat, trainee soldiers would be ordered to 'hit the ground running' when they were travelling at speed whether on a tank, boat or airplane. This may be true, but the expression existed years before either of the two world wars. By the late 1800s it was used in a literal sense in American civilian life, and the likelihood is that the Army borrowed the phrase because it so aptly describes an essential military manoeuvre. It is easy to see how the phrase came to be useful in today's fast-paced, competitive world, particularly in the business community.

Knock into a Cocked Hat

If something is 'knocked into a cocked hat', it is ruined and rendered worthless. Two possible origins have been suggested, one less convincing than the other. During the American Revolutionary War in the late eighteenth century, 'cocked hats' were worn by British and American officers. These hats, three-sided and worn with the rim turned up, were constantly going out of shape, and their uselessness was ridiculed by foot soldiers. So, to knock a fellow soldier into a cocked hat would have been to make him ineffective, to render him pointless. It's a nice story, yet while it is true that generals wore such silly hats, there is scant evidence that a phrase evolved out of this practice.

Far more plausible is the notion that the expression came from a bowling game which referred to the hats. Three-cornered Hat was a variation of ninepin bowls, in which three-corner pins were set up in a triangle. Each player had three balls per round, and if the three pins remained once the others had been knocked down, the game was all over, or 'knocked into a cocked hat'.

Stick to Your Guns

To 'stick to your guns' is to hold steady in your convictions and not be swayed by the views or actions of others. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the reference to guns, the phrase comes from military life, where the order was commonly issued to a group of soldiers to hold their ground or to an individual to stay at his post. Originally the expression was 'to stand to your guns', first recorded in the eighteenth century by Samuel Johnson's biographer James Boswell, but during the following century 'stick to your guns' came to replace it.

Use Your Loaf

This wonderful expression, an encouragement to be smart and use your head, is attached to a rather quaint myth. During the American Civil War soldiers trying to avoid enemy snipers in the forests would jab their bayonets into their daily bread ration and stick the loaf out to make it visible. If the enemy fired at the loaf, the soldiers could rest assured that they had 'used their loaf' well – by using a false 'head' they had saved their own. A diverting tale, but the truth is that the phrase is good old cockney rhyming slang. 'Loaf of bread' equals 'head'. Say no more.



Bat out of Hell

Meaning to move extremely quickly, this phrase originally came into widespread use in Britain's Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, when a plane was said to fly 'like a bat out of hell'. The comparison with bats is easy to understand – they appear to fly very quickly indeed, and give off an air of panic. As for their being 'out of hell', you can well imagine they would wish to avoid the burning flames of hell and would fly extra-fast to get away from them. This may only be part of the explanation as to how the phrase came about, though, as it's likely that the age-old association between bats and the fearsome powers of the occult has something to do with the formulation.

Bats in Your Belfry

If you have 'bats in your belfry', you're a bit crazy. Who coined this twentieth-century phrase is a mystery, but the meaning is simple to unpack. The belfry, or bell tower, is the part of a church where the bells hang, and the tower itself sits on the body of the building. So, metaphorically, your belfry is your head. Bats are well known to hang out in belfries, and equally notorious for flying around erratically, seemingly madly. So, to have bats in your head means you've got a whole lot of odd things going on in there.

Bee in Your Bonnet

'Don't get a bee in your bonnet!' is a common adage used in conversation. Meaning 'Don't get crazy or worked up', the phrase is thought to stem from the sixteenth-century saying 'to have a head full of bees'. The metaphorical notion of a head abuzz with bees equating to craziness must have always been easy to understand, but it was the poet Robert Herrick who threw the bonnet into the mix in his 1648 'Mad Maid's Song':

    Ah! woe is me, woe, woe is me! Alack and well-a-day!
    For pity, sir, find out that bee
    Which bore my love away.
    I'll seek him in your bonnet brave,
    I'll seek him in your eyes;
    Nay, now I think they've made his grave
    I' th' bed of strawberries.


Excerpted from Bees' Knees and Barmy Armies by Harry Oliver. Copyright © 2008 Harry Oliver. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Harry Oliver is the author of Black Cats and April Fools, Cat Flaps and Mousetraps, and March Hares and Monkeys' Uncles.

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