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Posted January 21, 2011
What an absolute delight! You don't know how ecstatic I was to be able to review Spilling the Beans on the Cat's Pajamas by Judy Parkinson. I love word reference books like these -- read them on a train, a bus, whatever, and be able to enjoy it all the way through! The alphabetical listing was so facile; I could look up my favorite euphemisms and scan through the book to catch interesting words, and since there were no chapters like most reference books, I could be satisfied with reading about just one phrase, and move on to the next. Maybe it's because of my love for the English language, or maybe it's just because I'm such a curious person, but it was so fascinating to learn about common, everyday phrases I normally say without a second thought. Each article would list the definition of the expression, it's origin, and sometimes even a direct quotation from the said source. In honor of the book, I'll give you excerpts on the two title expressions, as well as my all-time favorite :)
Spill the Beans
The expression beans "to let on," to tell all -- perhaps prematurely, to an eager audience, to give away a secret, or "to let the cat out of the bag" (which is evidently, a whole nother story).
There are various explanations for the derivation, one of the most colorful being that it may have originated at the turn of the twentieth century as a euphemism for vomiting, because beans represent basic food.
Another possibility is that the phrase comes from the ancient Greek voting practices, where black and white beans were used to represent agreement and disagreement with the issue being voted on. Each voter put one bean into a pot or helmet and the result was revealed by spilling the beans.
The Cat's Pajamas
This colloquialism first surfaced in the 1920s to describe something or someone superlatively good or top-notch and has retained its meaning for almost a hundred years.
Alternative sources suggest that the phrase may come from an early nineteenth-century English tailor E. B. Katz, who apparently made the finest silk pajamas, though there is little evidence to prove this is true.
Cute as a Button
To be charming, pretty, or attractive in a dainty way, almost always with the connotation of being small.
This often used simile sounds odd when you think about it. After all, how is it that a button is cute? That's debatable. Some say the "button" referred to here is not the kind you find on a shirt but actually the flower bud on a bachelor's button. Others insist the phrase refers to the button quail, and adorable little gray, fluffy bird.
Definitely one of the most entertaining reference books I've had the privilege of picking up. Totally recommend it!
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