Butter someone up.
More than you can shake a stick at.
Admit it. These are phrases that you hear (and use) every day and — wait a minute — you have no idea what they mean or where they started. Along comes Albert Jack, who has researched all of this (and more) in his book “Black Sheep and Lame Ducks: The Origins of More Phrases We Use Every Day” (Perigree Trade, $13.95).
Jack, a South African historian and author, has sold more than a half-million books based on the fact that we are simply too lazy to find out what we are talking about.
Surprisingly, “bottoms up” originally had nothing to do with actually drinking your favorite adult beverage. According to our man Jack, it goes back to the 18th century when the English (boo) navy recruiters tried to hire (presumably drunk) pub visitors by dropping a king’s shilling into their pewter mugs. The (presumably sober) recruiter would then take this discovery to mean that the patron had agreed to sign on for a few years.
Off you go, mate.
The pub owners, discovering that their customers were disappearing rapidly, switched to pint containers with glass bottoms. Wise imbibers would lift their glasses straight up or “bottoms up” to make sure the shilling wasn’t there.
Pretty good. That alone would be worth $13.95. But there’s more.
A “bare-faced lie” was rather simple, Jack says. It referred to a clean-shaven face as opposed to a bearded mug, which could “hide all manner of deceit.” As you can see, I employ a white beard to hide my various deceits.
I don’t know if I believe it, but I like the Jack-inspired origins of “shake a stick at.” According to our boy, it dates back to George Washington, who was seen shaking a ceremonial wooden sword over British (boo) troops he had just defeated. Other less-inspiring and inspired generals then adopted the phrase to justify their failure. “We had more men to fight than you could shake a stick at was apparently a common excuse for failure on the battlefield,” Jack reports. More mundane observers have traced the phrase to shepherds who have more sheep than they can control with their wooden staffs. But, I digress.
Cobb Manor has seen more than one visitor (no names, please) “run amok” during the annual celebrations, including Saint Patrick’s Day. I must admit that I never thought twice about the term. Jack has. He reported that it derives from the Malay word “amoq,” which describes tribesmen under the influence of opium. It became a name-droppers’ delight in the 18th century, when travelers wanted to impress the homebound couch potatoes. I will use the term more judiciously in the future.
Is blood thicker than water?
Jack says this has little to do with family ties. Just the opposite. In Middle Eastern culture the bond between warriors, or “blood brothers,” was considered far greater and more important than simple family connections. It was later corrupted to mean just the opposite by English (boo) nobility, who wanted to stress their bloodlines to avoid getting a real job.
I am not that bright and I will believe anything, even WMDs in Iraq, but I draw the line at the explanation for “buttering up” someone to gain favor. I always assumed it had something to do with dinner rolls, leading to a free turkey dinner.
Hold your laughter. Jack claims that the term dates back to an ancient Indian custom of “throwing butterballs of ghee (clarified butter commonly used in Indian cooking) at the statues of the gods” to seek favor. Additionally, the Tibetan tradition of creating butter sculptures for the new year “can be traced to the Tang Dynasty and the belief that such offerings would bring peace and happiness for the full lunar year.”
I know you have used the term “turn a blind eye to” for something you want to ignore (such as your expanding waistline), but you have no idea of its origins. Jack to the rescue.
The term goes back to the English (boo) again and the 1801 battle of Copenhagen. You remember that one. During the battle, Adm. Sir Hyde Parker, commander of the British fleet, attempted to stop Horatio Nelson from launching an attack on the enemy. “When Nelson’s officers pointed out the order, he famously raised a telescope to his blind eye and replied: ‘Order, what order? I see no ships,’” Jack reports.
Well, I have been running amok and giving you more derivations than you can shake a stick at. I don’t want to butter you up any more and that’s no bald-faced lie.