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Casual Lex: An Informal Assemblage of Why We Say What We Say

Casual Lex: An Informal Assemblage of Why We Say What We Say

by Webb Garrison

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Are you a lover of language?

Awaken your passion for words, and savor the sheer deliciousness of the things people say!

Casual Lex holds the hidden pleasures found in our usage of words. This fresh edition of the classic Why You Say It will turn you on to the fascinating, and often surprising?stories behind everyday words and phrases.


Are you a lover of language?

Awaken your passion for words, and savor the sheer deliciousness of the things people say!

Casual Lex holds the hidden pleasures found in our usage of words. This fresh edition of the classic Why You Say It will turn you on to the fascinating, and often surprising?stories behind everyday words and phrases. Experience Casual Lex and discover:

  • The phrase hell on wheels comes from the early American practice of renting railway flatcars to create rolling casinos and brothels bound for the Wild West.
  • Gibberish was the word coined by English villagers to describe the hard-to-understand dialects of certain bands of Gypsies.
  • Gymnasium comes from the Greek word gymnos, which means "naked"?Greek athletes trained and competed in the nude.

If your joy of language has been aroused, then many more surprises await you. After all, even the most formal users of our language can benefit from a little Casual Lex.

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An Informal Assemblage of Why We Say What We Say

Rutledge Hill Press

Copyright © 2007 Webb Garrison
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-40160-218-5

Chapter One


Gamblers and confidence men have followed the track since the beginning of organized horse racing. A standard attraction at a medieval race was a crude gambling wheel that was a forerunner of the roulette wheel we know today. This device was customarily mounted on a stand, the sides of which were draped with brightly colored cloth.

Unscrupulous operators would install a treadle under the stand to regulate the stopping point of the wheel. Though the ruse was exposed, it continued to flourish. A gambler who wished to convince bystanders of the honesty of his game would point to his wheel and cry, "All above the board, sirs! All above the board!" This claim that there was no concealed treadle under the board soon entered common speech as aboveboard, meaning "straightforward" or "without concealment."


Stud poker was popularized during the cowboy era. More than any other game, it separated cowpokes from their wages and miners from their dust. Complex rules govern the way in which cards are dealt, held, and played.

With other cards exposed so that opponents may see them, a lucky player sometimes holds an ace that is face down-concealed "in the hole." That card may be the pivot on which a game turns.

Any asset or source of strength, kept secret by its holder, is so much like a concealed playing card that it is an ace in the hole.


Regardless of how tough a person may be, he or she has a weak spot somewhere. Such was the case with one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology.

In ancient times it was common knowledge that the water of the river Styx was potent-so potent that a baby dipped into it received supernatural protection. Skin touched by the water remained pliable yet tough as steel.

One mother decided to give her son a kind of immortality. Hours after the boy was delivered, she hurried to the river and, holding him by his heel, dipped him into the mysterious water. That made Achilles invulnerable over most of his body.

But in the end, Achilles was killed during the Trojan War by a wound to his heel-the part left covered when his mother dipped him in the river. Water didn't touch his heel, so the mythological superman had a small but mortal flaw.

Stories about the mother's son have survived after many centuries. As a result, any seemingly invincible person's weakest point is his or her Achilles' heel.


Wandering peddlers, who have since given way to telemarketers, were once a familiar part of the European and American scene. A typical fellow carried a few household articles in a pack; if well established, he might drive a wagon with a variety of goods.

Many a peddler made his real money not by the sale of goods but by the purchase of old gold from persons he encountered. Even a veteran found it hard to assess the value of filled and plated articles by examination. But a positive test was easily used. After filing a shallow groove in a piece, the prospective buyer would touch it with nitric acid. Color reactions gave a reasonably accurate index as to the gold content and hence the true value.

Bottles of nitric acid were used on so many articles containing gold that any exacting trial came to be called an acid test.


Count Abraham Lincoln among the famous people sporting a prominent Adam's apple. Male chauvinism is responsible for the centuries-old name.

Pioneer English anatomists were puzzled by the section of cartilage that refused to stay in one spot. Folktales explained that Adam should not have taken that apple from Eve in the Garden of Eden. When he yielded to her temptation, a piece of fruit stuck on the way down. Ever since, it has moved when men eat or talk in order to warn: "Beware of the temptress!"

In truth, the growth of the visible knot is stimulated by male hormones. Because women have a small amount of this hormone, they also have a small version of the Adam's apple.


Antimony is a mineral common in Egypt and the Middle East. Arabs made a fine black powder with the antimony and called it kohl. Dabbed onto the eyelids, the stain was one of the earliest cosmetics.

Queens and women of wealth spent fortunes on the finest variety of eye shadow, which they called al-kohl-literally "the powder." Queen Shub-ad of Ur kept her al-kohl in a silver box fifty-five hundred years ago.

By the early seventeenth century, western travelers used alcohol for "fine powder that stains." Eventually it referred to any substance obtained from an essence-and particularly distillation. Thus alcohol of wine meant the "essence of wine." Soon it became simply alcohol; thus, today's liquid refreshments bear the name of eye shadow used by beauties of ancient Egypt.


Scholars of medieval England developed great pride in their learning. A "man of letters" seldom used ordinary language. Instead he relied almost entirely upon Latin.

Lawyers fond of displaying their knowledge frequently used Latin phrases, even in their courtroom addresses. One such expression was alias dictus, meaning "otherwise called." A criminal known by more than one name might be mentioned as Richard Stone, alias dictus Robert Scott. Use of the sonorous phrase was so frequent that by 1535 ordinary folk had adopted the word alias to designate any assumed name.


Courtroom practices are slow to change. Lawyers continued to use Latin long after it was abandoned in everyday speech.

Alibi was a Latin term meaning "elsewhere" and for centuries was standard in criminal cases. It was common for a defense attorney to rest his case upon evidence that his client was alibi at the time of the crime.

Use of the centuries-old term was so common that it entered modern speech with no change in spelling and little difference in meaning. An accused person who is able to establish an alibi is almost like a citizen in the realm of the Caesars who answered an accusation by saying he or she was elsewhere when the deed was done.


Until modern times, adult white males who paid taxes or could provide military service were the only citizens allowed to vote. Election day was set aside for talking, drinking, and carousing after having voted.

Ballots were hand counted, so results were not announced until long after the polls had closed. Especially in a tight election, announcement of the count was likely to trigger a roar from supporters of the winning candidate.

In a one-sided contest, everybody knew the winner long before the last ballot was counted. This meant that when the polls closed, the outcome was unofficial but decided-it was all over but the shouting of victory.


Late in the nineteenth century, physicians developed great interest in a puzzling phenomenon. Patients who were helped by the first dose of a new drug sometimes had adverse reactions to later doses. At a loss for a more precise name, specialists used the Greek word allos (other) to coin the word allergy, a condition in which reactions are other than standard.

By 1925 the new word had come into general medical use to refer to the peculiar reactions a person has to a variety of substances, whether they be foods, drugs, or environmental elements such as pollen.


In many horse races, only the first three animals to cross the line are counted. Others in the field follow, but the order in which they finish may not be announced.

Newspapers of the nineteenth century made readers familiar with animals that placed in major races. All three were frequently described, with their times, owners, and winnings listed. Toward the end of such a story, it was a common practice to mention many or all of the horses that also ran.

Presidential elections came more and more to resemble horse races with crowded fields. In reporting results of an election, newspapers dismissed many an aspirant for the White House as an also-ran-one who was so far back in the field that his finish order wasn't computed.

By the turn of the century, the political term borrowed from the racetrack was being applied to a person badly beaten in any competition.


Ancient Greek housewives employed special cloths to keep dust out of food pots. They even devised a technical word meaning "to take away the cover." Romans who borrowed the term from these housewives modified it to apocalypsis.

By 200 BC, Judea was in a state of turmoil that lasted for three centuries. National and international distress helped produce a stream of literature making predictions about the future. Hope of sharing in the future glory of God's kingdom made it somewhat easier to bear the burdens of the age. Since a document of this type helped "take away the cover" from the future, Jews called it an apocalypse.

Though many apocalypses were produced, only one stood the test of time: the stirring and poetic account of John's visions on the island of Patmos. Today it is referred to as "the Revelation of Saint John," but to the early church it was known as "the Apocalypse." The impact of this dynamic document was so great that any vision or prophecy dealing with the coming of God's earthly reign is termed apocalyptic literature.


Mass production of cars was late in starting. Henry Ford got the idea from watching an overhead trolley in a Chicago packing plant. In order to build automobiles in large quantity, he had Model-T flywheel magnetos move slowly past workers who each performed only one or two operations.

Production soared 400 percent, so he moved from magnetos to engines and transmissions and then to complete cars. Model-T's in the making, conveyed at six feet per minute past workers who used standardized parts, were sold at prices not imagined when cars were handmade luxuries. Ford launched modern mass production, yet the workers soon complained that their jobs were monotonous.

Even when performed at the keyboard of a computer instead of beside a conveyor belt, any highly repetitive work is likely to be criticized as an assembly line job.


During the days of the windjammers and other great sailing vessels, rigging grew more and more complex. On many ships there were literally hundreds of ropes. If these ropes had been left free to ravel, a hopeless tangle could have resulted. So every ship's master prided himself on the good condition of his "ends"-the taped ends of his ropes.

When other work was slack, members of the crew were frequently put to work repairing the loose ends. Many a captain was accused of ordering such work to keep his men occupied, so a person with nothing important to do is said to be at loose ends.


Dueling by prescribed rules was common in the United States until the mid-1800s, although the various states began to outlaw it, beginning with Tennessee in 1801. In one of the most famous duels, Aaron Burr, the vice president of the United States, killed Alexander Hamilton, former secretary of the treasury.

According to the dueling code, the man challenged had the choice of weapons, and usually they were pistols in America. Each duelist chose a friend to act as a "second," and a surgeon often attended. To avoid the law officers, the meetings often took place at dawn in a forest clearing. The duelists stood back to back and marched an agreed number of paces in opposite directions. Then one of the seconds dropped a handkerchief, and the fighters turned and fired.

On the frontier, disagreements were settled much more informally. Participants used guns, knives, whips, or fists-and they often fought in broad daylight before an audience. The referee would drop a hat (often more readily available than a handkerchief) to start the fight.

The phrase at the drop of a hat, meaning ready to begin a fight or other undertaking, apparently was first used in the West around 1887.


These days, it's possible for one of your fellow workers to go AWOL, or walk off the job without giving notice. Earlier, reference to this term was limited to members of the military.

A fellow wearing the uniform of his country's army or navy or marine corps was never under any delusions about what he could and couldn't do. Discipline is basic to military life. But many buck privates in the rear ranks or a brand-new member of a ship's crew simply walked off his base or vessel when the notion struck him. When discovered and placed under arrest-as he almost always was, sooner or later-he was listed on the roster as having been "absent without official leave."

The initial letters of the damning record, A.W.O.L., became the brand-new word AWOL.


The influence of Poor Richard's Almanac and other publications made Benjamin Franklin one of the most widely read of early American writers.

He is a central character in one of his own stories. In the tale, a young Franklin was approached by a fellow who stopped to admire the family grindstone. In asking to be shown how it worked, the stranger offered young Ben an ax with which to demonstrate. Once his ax was sharp, the fellow walked off, laughing.

Readers should beware of people who have an ax to grind, for they have a hidden motive.


Especially during a group activity, it is common for someone to propose going back to square one. That is shorthand for suggesting: "Let's scrap all we have done, and start over."

Not a bad way to express the notion of giving up and making a fresh start. The expression took shape during the pre-electronic era in which board games of many kinds were in use. Several widely popular ones involved moving tokens in response to a throw of the dice or drawing of a card. At the beginning of a contest, all tokens were placed at the same starting point-square one of the board.

A proposal about going back to square one meant scrapping the ongoing game and starting a new one.


Medieval Europe had few sports as popular as bearbaiting. An animal that was captured as a cub would be trained to fight dogs. Then the bear's owner would take him from village to village and set him against the dogs of local sporting men. These fights usually took place in some public place and constituted community outings. No admission was charged, but the bear's master would take up a collection some time during the exhibition.

Rough though the sport was, a few rules grew up to govern it. For example, the bear's master was required to fasten him to a post with a chain that could not exceed an agreed length. Owners of dogs were expected to keep their animals in hand and to let only a few attack the bear at once.

When a bear was pulled up short by reaching the end of his chain, some of the dogs would hold him at bay. Sometimes one of the pack would slip behind the bear and attack him from the rear. Unable to protect himself from such a backbite, the bear would let out a roar of pain and rage. Good sportsmanship outlawed backbiting, but it was a common occurrence. As early as the twelfth century the term had come to describe anyone taking an unfair advantage. Then its meaning expanded, and the expression entered modern speech to mean speaking ill of a person behind his or her back.


Frontiersmen faced a serious problem when it came to starting a fire. Matches were rare, and flint and steel often failed in damp weather. Many pioneers tried to keep a fire burning without interruption for months at a time.

A big green log, next to stones in the back of a fireplace, would smolder for days. Dry wood would be laid in front of it to burn, and the next morning the back log yielded embers from which a new blaze could be started.

As a rule, the back log was not used for fuel, although it could be pulled out and burned in an emergency. Over time, any sort of reserve came to be known as a backlog. In contemporary parlance, a more familiar use of the term refers to an excess number of duties waiting to be performed.


Excerpted from CASUAL LEX by WEBB GARRISON Copyright © 2007 by Webb Garrison. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Webb Garrison, formerly associate dean of Emory University and president of McKendree College, wrote more than 55 books, including Civil War Curiosities and Civil War Trivia and Fact Book. Before his death in 2000, Garrison lived in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.

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