Solving the mystery of cliches

By Emmet Meara, Special to the News
Posted May 20, 2011, at 2:10 p.m.

I have often been criticized for the “disgraceful” amount of time I spend on the Internet. It is the first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do at night, before I close my baby hazel eyes.

But I am not just surfing for the latest pictures of Pippa Middleton, nor just perusing food sites for new recipes for David Grima’s dazzling dinner parties.

I also seek to solve the mysteries of cliches, such as paying “an arm and a leg” for something or being “straight laced.” We say (or text) these things every day without a thought to where they came from.

I will ride to the rescue.

One of my favorites is “God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.” It appears in old western movies and novels. If it wasn’t used in “Grapes of Wrath” it should have been.

Well, my scholarly research has found the origins of the term which does not refer to a body of water, but a band of Indians. When President Andrew Jackson once summoned career diplomat and Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins to the nation’s capital, Hawkins was concerned with a Creek tribe uprising. Hence the response.

You’re welcome.

I liked the original response for “an arm and a leg” which allegedly dealt with portrait painting during the Revolutionary era. It was said at many sites that the term originated when painters charges a fee for a simple head portrait, but more for a full-length body depiction, including arms and legs.

But The Phrase Finder website debunks this myth, since the first record of publication occurred after World War II, in 1949. The site reported that the term probably had a lot more to do with the horrendous cost of World War II when many veterans came home with missing limbs.

I liked the portrait explanation better.

You hear the term “straight laced” every day, well, maybe every week. According to our friends at The Phrase Finder, this term refers to the bad old days when every woman worth her salt (another one) would wear an elaborate corset. A proper and dignified woman wore a tightly-laced corset and was then referred to as “straight laced.”

I like that one.

Naturally, I had to investigate the origins of the term “Chairman.” It seemed much too simple.

According to the site Suite 101, the term dates back to the 1700s, way before Iggy Pop, cable and cell phones when most houses had a single chair, if any. A long board would be folded down from the wall for dining. The family would eat buffet style while the Most Important Person would take the single chair. That would normally be the father unless an even more important person arrived hunting bear, or elk. Then he would get the chair. Hence the term “chairman” or “chairman of the board.”

Many people have been accused of “not playing with a full deck.”

According to Schecklerbouman.com, this dates back to the bad old days when playing cards were taxed. The tax stamp was always placed on the ace of spades, the top card in the deck. To avoid the tax, some people bought a 51-card deck and had to make do without royal straight flushes, at least in spades. If you were playing cards without that ace, you were said to be “not playing with a full deck.”

I like this one.

You can imagine the personal hygiene on the prairie. It was scarcer than dessert at the Grima house. So many pioneers developed severe acne scars that women would often spread bee’s wax to smooth their pretty faces. Now, I could not prove this anywhere but some sites suggest that when one woman paid to much attention to the new makeup, she was told to “mind your own bee’s wax.”

If the woman smiled to aggressively, the wax would crack, hence the term “crack a smile.” If she sat too close to the fire and started melting, one site suggested that was the origin of “losing face.”

I cannot verify any of the wax legends, so you are on your own. I must go back online to determine my presidential preference. I was with Donald Trump just for the humor, and I might switch to Newt Gingrich now, just for the imminent destruction.

I will also search for new pictures of Pippa.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/05/20/living/solving-the-mystery-of-cliches/ printed on December 25, 2014