Why Do We Say….?

They’re figures of speech we all use daily—but where do they come from?

Happy As a Clam
This well-known expression only makes much sense if you know the whole phrase is “Happy as a clam at high tide.” This is an American figure of speech, hardly known elsewhere. It was first recorded in the 1830s, though it is certainly much older. As seafood hunters know, clam digging has to be done at low tide. When the water is high, clams are secure and presumably, happy.

Pull Out All the Stops
Means make every possible effort, this expression has been in use since the 1500s. In this context, the stop is the part of a pipe organ that controls the air flow to the pipe and increases the musical volume. You pull on the knob to increase the air flow. Pulling out all the stops lets the organ play at maximum volume, holding back nothing.

Acid Test
It means the definitive test. The most famous acid test is the one for gold. It relies on the fact that gold dissolves in few substances other than the famous aqua regia (a.k.a. royal water), a mixture of hydrochloric acid (HCl) and nitric acid (HNO3). A reliable test for gold is to expose a sample to aqua regia and observe what happens.

To go haywire means broken, in a state of chaos. Haywire is the springy, soft wire that holds a bale of hay (cut grass) together. When it breaks, it tends to flail around in all directions, like a whip. The term describes anything that breaks in a crazy way.

Gosh, Golly, Gee
Are these harmless expressions to express surprise or excitement or have they a more serious purpose? They are, in fact, euphemistic interjections to substitute for the word god—or in the case of gee, Jesus. The use of gosh predates golly by about 100 years. A euphemism substitutes a mild expression for one that seems offensive or harsh. You employ a euphemism when you say someone passed away or departed when you mean he died. Euphemism derives from the Greek root eu-, which means good and pheme, which means speaking. Blaspheme is the opposite of eupheme.

According to the US Air Force, your wingman is the pilot who supports you in a dangerous flying environment by flying beside and slightly behind you in an aircraft formation, watching your back. A wingman is expected to remain with the leader, even at the cost of scoring an easy kill. In contemporary usage, a wingman is someone on the inside used to help in intimate relationships; a woman’s wingman will help her avoid the attention of undesirable prospective partners, while a man’s wingman will help him attract desirable ones.

Third World
The phrase, third world country came to mean an underdeveloped one following an article in L’Observateur in August, 1952 by French population expert Alfred Sauvy. He referred to poor countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia, which were aligned with neither the communist nor the capitalist blocs, as belonging to the third world. First world countries were those based on a capitalist model of high-income market economies, of which the USA was the principal example. Second world countries were the relatively high-income communist countries or those with centrally planned economies in which the government owns the means of production; here the USSR was the prime case. All these terms lost relevance following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Brand New
In a phrase that dates from the sixteenth century, something brand new was an item, whether pottery or forged metal, fresh from the fires of its creation. Shakespeare used the expression fire new to mean the same thing.
The verb to brand means to mark with an iron hot from the fire. The first brands were probably vintners’ trademarks on wooden wine casks marked in this manner. The practice of branding horses and cows with the owner’s unique mark comes from the same source.

The Word Hound welcomes your questions, comments & pet words.