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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

This page contains an open-ended alphabetical list of expressions that have largely or entirely disappeared from everyday language. There are no gestures at rigor here; it’s just for fun. Submit yours with or without commentary to or as a comment and I’ll post them with credit.


(“great,” “awesome”)
Still used in my childhood, a holdover from the space program in the 1960’s. Immortalized by Allan Sherman in “Shticks of one and Half a Dozen of the Other”: “If the lox puts you in orbit, a-ok!”

around Robin Hood’s barn

(long, circuitous route)
I looked this up in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, hoping it would give me an explanation, however fanciful, of the origin of this phrase, but no luck. Any ideas? No reasonable offer refused.

back of beyond

(“middle of nowhere”)
About as remote as it gets. Implies some signs of civilization — you wouldn’t use the phrase about trackless jungle or wilderness — but very few and far between.

back to the drawing board

(“let’s try that again,” “time to start over”)
When you had to go back to the beginning and start over, you might use this expression. You had to redesign the whole thing, whatever it was, so you had to create a new set of plans and try to do it right next time. My father sometimes used “Time to turn over the chessboard” to mean something similar, but that was more aggressive, when you don’t just need to start from scratch, but you have to blow the whole thing up before you begin again.


(“tough or formidable old woman”)
Classically uttered by a frustrated son-in-law, having just received unwanted instructions from his wife’s mother. While walking away, he would mutter, “Old battle-axe!” — never to her face. Completely different personality from a biddy (q.v.). Could be used admiringly, but more often not. I haven’t heard the expression since I was young, and I can’t think of a contemporary equivalent.

beat it

(“get out of here”)
Michael Jackson had something different in mind, obviously. “Beat it” once was commonly used, both in the indicative and the imperative (more often the latter) to suggest a hurried, if not forced, exit. Related expressions: scram, get lost, buzz off (“piss off” in British English). More hostile than “split” (q.v.).

bedroom eyes

(“seductive looks”)
An attribute of a person; if someone had bedroom eyes, it meant that they expressed sexual magnetism through eye contact. You either had bedroom eyes or you didn’t — most people didn’t.


(pronounced “byoot” as in beauty)
It’s what you might call a freshly caught fish, or a black eye, if it’s a really fine specimen. A beaut wasn’t beautiful so much as impressive. We would more readily say “that’s really something” or “really nice.” Could be used ironically, but not usually. There’s a clever little exchange in Firesign Theater’s “Temporarily Humboldt County” between the noble Indian and the pioneer yahoo. After the Indian points out that he’s standing on the holy serpent mound, the yahoo says, “It’s a beaut.” The Indian, hearing “butte,” says, “No, it’s a mound.”


(meddlesome (old) woman)
We have so many words for “old woman,” from hag to dowager. A biddy didn’t have to be old, but had to seem old — fussy and censorious — and usually the term was reserved for an officious woman who stuck her nose into other people’s business. Not too strong, but with a definite edge of scorn. Comes from an old word for “hen.”

bill of fare

“Fare” is still commonly used as a synonym for food, often to refer to particular styles or ethnicities. “Bill of fare” sounds distinctly old-fashioned now.


(violent, slanderous public speech)

bite the hand that feeds you

(“act ungrateful”)
Proverbial or quasi-proverbial. Ingratitude toward a patron, that sort of thing. Originally referred to dogs, I think.


As in “Go to blazes!” Or “What in blazes is going on here?!” If you were really mad you could say, “What in blue blazes is going on here?!” We just don’t need it any more; sweet little grannies say “hell” now without turning a hair. More to the point, you can say “hell” in front of a sweet little old lady without worrying about whether she will take offense.

bloody Chiclets

“How would you like a mouthful of bloody Chiclets?” meant “How would you like a punch in the mouth?” It was like the flip side of a knuckle sandwich. They still make Chiclets, and they still look kinda like teeth, but nobody says this any more.

bone to pick

(“problem,” “grounds for disagreement”)
Maybe we’re less quarrelsome than we used to be. There are other words in the same ballpark that have gone the way of the dinosaur, like “beef” and “rhubarb.” When I was a kid, you still heard baseball announcers use those two, but that was a very limited context; I think they were pretty well out of general circulation even then.


(“nonsense,” “foolishness”)
Used more often as an interjection than as a noun, sometimes “Bosh and nonsense!” Lots of fun old words for nonsense. Poppycock, balderdash, malarkey, tommyrot, twaddle . . . “Pish, tush (“uh” sound) and horsefeathers!” as my father used to say.


(“great,” “cool,” “awesome”)

break wind

There were other words for it, like “pass gas” or “poot” (or “toot”), but “break wind” was the most common euphemism for a while. “Fart” was still a slightly bad word in my childhood, but it seems to be o.k. now to say it on television.

buckle down

(“get to work,” “get down to business”)
Usually the implication of this expression was that one hadn’t been working hard enough, as in “Time to buckle down.” It wasn’t normally used in the imperative, but the idea of giving an order to oneself or someone else is implicit.

Sometimes this expression is confused with “knuckle under,” which meant something entirely different: “submit” or “give in.” The misunderstanding is based, as so often, on sound rather than sense.

(like a) bump on a log

(“torpidly,” “motionlessly”)
“Don’t sit there like a bump on a log” was a common expression once, and it meant something like “Don’t just stand there” — do something useful, for heaven’s sake. That sense of being useless was always part of it, I think. It denoted a particular kind of inactivity, the kind that occurs when something needs to be done.


(“worn out,” “exhausted”)
More or less interchangeable with “beat” (“I worked hard all day, and I’m beat”), although “bushed” was a little stronger. This word enjoyed a brief renaissance under our previous president, but it seems to be done.


An air kiss or fleeting contact of lips with cheek — it was possible to be bussed on the lips, but you might not notice. Bussing didn’t amount to much. It’s odd that the word has disappeared during an era of celebrity-worship, since it denotes exactly the kind of passionless kiss celebrities give each other during photo opportunities.

butter no parsnips

(“waste time,” “be unproductive”)
A favorite of my father’s. It was already quaint, or worse, in my childhood, but that didn’t faze Dad. Usually in the form of “This is buttering no parsnips,” which meant, “We’re not getting anywhere,” or “We’re not getting our work done.” Now that I think about it, he may have made the expression up. It doesn’t seem to be in any of my dictionaries.

Turns out Dad wasn’t as fecund as I’d feared. I asked around, and several independent sources confirmed that the phrase had general currency.

buy a pig in a poke

(“not know what you’re getting”)
A fine old country expression. “Poke” meant bag. When I was a boy, visiting my mother’s family in central North Carolina, “sack” was still current, though perhaps already falling behind “bag,” but “poke” had been done for generations. The idea behind this expression is concealing defects. You put your suspect pig in a bag, so the buyer can’t inspect it. Hence the figurative meaning.


(“briefs,” “tighty whiteys”)
Wasn’t it a brand name that became a general term?


(“first-rate,” “top-notch”)
Maybe this is more British, but it was used in the U.S., too. I think it’s gone, although for all I know Wall Street types still welcome new investors with a hearty “Capital capital!” Come to think of it, “top-notch” don’t get around much any more, either.


(“cut-up,” “life of the party”)
The guy who put a lampshade on his head at parties. Did anyone ever really do that, or did it only happen in cartoons? Nowadays we’d say they’re just trying to get attention.

case (the joint)

(“survey premises,” usually with criminal intent)
Is there another word for this? It packed a lot of meaning into a compact phrase. Maybe it’s still in use and I’m not traveling in the right circles, but I associate it with 1940’s mystery novels.


(“unpredictable person,” “person who says what’s on his mind”?)
I took a while to come up with a definition of this word when my girlfriend’s daughter asked me what it meant. Finally I came up with “someone who you never know what they’re going to do next,” but later it occurred to me that it could be someone who doesn’t mince words. Or simply someone you have to keep an eye on. Any other ideas?


(“chat,” “conversation”)
I’m not sure when this was active slang, but it already sounded archaic in my childhood. It has a light-hearted tone that I like.

(have a) chip on one’s shoulder

(“be looking for a fight”)
I think people — boys, anyway — really used to do this: put a wood chip or something on their shoulder and invite someone to knock it off. Sort of a frontier version of throwing down the gauntlet. When I was a kid, the usual means of starting a fight was merciless verbal goading, but you heard, or read, this expression occasionally. Maybe older people still use it, but it seems to be gone. “Spoiling for a fight” was stronger still. A chip on your shoulder could just be a lousy attitude, but spoiling for a fight means you really want to deck somebody.


(“right away,” “get busy”)
Could be used as an ordinary adverb, but more often as an imperative, meaning “Do it now!” I don’t know where it comes from, but it sounds like mock-Chinese. Now you hear it in bodegas where they toss your salad for you; some customers prefer their salads chopped up, so the employees say, “Chop-chop?” meaning “Do you want it chopped up?” Otherwise, they just toss it.


Another fertile lode of slang ore is expressions for money, in this case the almighty dollar. (If it’s almighty, we can’t afford to take its name in vain, so we need the euphemisms.) According to Berrey and Van den Bark’s slang thesaurus (1943), a clam was specifically a silver dollar, although I think of it as referring to a dollar in general, like smackers, simoleons, spondulicks, and bucks. “Bucks” is still pretty ordinary, I think, but the others are long gone. In Arthur Train’s story “Wile versus Guile” (1920) from the collection Tutt and Mr. Tutt, “bones” is used to mean dollars. Archie Goodwin used “berries” in a Nero Wolfe novel. “Greenbacks,” a nineteenth-century expression, lasted into the twentieth century but not the twenty-first (it usually referred to paper currency generally). I haven’t heard anyone say “big ones” in a while.

clean as a whistle

(“squeaky clean,” “clean as can be”)
Also “clean as a hound’s tooth.” Something that had been carefully washed and polished was clean as a whistle. It wasn’t generally used metaphorically; you might describe a chain-saw cut as clean, but probably not clean as a whistle. My father used it sometimes if I’d done a particularly good job on the bathroom.


(“speed,” “pace”)
Used as part of a phrase, such as “moving along at a good clip.” (It had to be a good clip; there was no such thing as moving along at a bad clip.)


(“nonsense,” “garbage”)
Doesn’t this word sound great? It was pretty strong — one level below a minced oath (e.g., “horsebleep”). Most often used as an interjection, but I think you could also say something like “That’s a load of codswallop!”


(“woman college student”)
From “co-educational,” which became a buzzword in the twentieth century as all-male colleges began admitting female students. The word was still common in my youth, although already understood to be slightly demeaning; it always had a patronizing tinge. Now that women students are the majority and have been for some time, “coed” has fallen into disuse.

come a cropper

(“fall on one’s face”)
This was a Briticism, never very common in the U.S. But there was a day, more recent than you might think, when American English was more led than followed by British English, so educated Americans did use the expression. Normally figurative, it meant something like “be humiliated in public,” although it had a looser meaning more like “fall short.” It didn’t have to be used of persons, but that was probably most common.

come again?

(“what?” “huh?”)
Another way to ask “What did you say?”


(“(daily) walk”)
Undertaken for the sake of fitness before anyone knew the word. Generally a brisk walk with a fixed route taken around the same time every day. It was supposed to be good for your constitution, that is, help you maintain a foundation of good health that would allow you to weather illness and misfortune. Thanks to Lovely Liz from Queens for exhuming this word!


(“unreliable or ill-made machine”)
It just doesn’t sound right to call a computer a “contraption,” although heaven knows they’re unreliable enough. But the word goes with mechanical objects, like cars or can openers.

cool as a cucumber

Contributed by Adam from Queens. This had nothing to do with hipness; it was strictly about calm under pressure or perhaps keeping personal distance. But more often I think calm and collected than nose in the air. You could call such a person a “cool customer,” also.

cool one’s heels

Generally an imposed, irksome waiting. A subordinate might cool his or her heels because the boss feels like making them wait. I suppose the idea was you had rushed to your destination, which caused your soles to heat up, and then were forced to sit idly until they cooled off. Not to be confused with “cool your jets” (calm down).

cudgel one’s brains

(“think hard,” “try to remember”)
A stronger version of “put on your thinking cap.” To cudgel your brains (the personal pronoun was mandatory — you didn’t say “cudgel the brains”) meant to expend maximum mental effort, usually in thinking about a problem that had recently presented itself. A cudgel was a club, so the idea was you were really bashing away. (Note the difference from “beat one’s brains out,” which invokes much more literal violence.)


(“hold on one’s lap”)
Could be done with a baby or a showgirl.

darken someone’s door

(“come over,” “visit”)
Often used in the negative imperative, as in “Never darken my door again!”

dead as a doornail

(“completely dead”)
My father used this one. To this day, I don’t see why doornails, or nails in general, should exemplify death any more than any other inanimate object. Come to think of it, I don’t even know what a doornail was. (A “coffin nail” was a cigarette.) An equivalent expression: dead as a mackerel.

dern tootin’

(“got that right”)
“Damn straight” was another emphatic way of conveying affirmation, as was “you said a mouthful” (q.v.). “Dern tootin'” was jokey; “damn straight” was more serious. “Dern tootin'” was normally used with “you’re,” but “damn straight” was uttered by itself as an exclamation. They both meant about the same thing underneath it all. (Thanks to my old buddy Charles for contributing to this entry.)


This phrase conveyed a certain panache, or flair. It generally described a person, sometimes an action. To my ear, it suggests potentially dangerous actions backed up by competence. You can afford to take risks and pull off wild stunts if you know what you’re doing.


(“home,” “(one’s) place”)
Where you hang your hat. Older than “pad,” which became common in the sixties, and possibly British. The word to me implies an apartment rather than a house. It sounds as old-fashioned now as “abode” or “dwelling,” which are not vernacular.


(“binge drinker,” “alcoholic”)
This term has been replaced by “alcoholic,” but it often meant something stronger: a person who cannot control his or her drinking. A lot of alcoholics have jobs and keep their drinking from getting out of hand, but a dipsomaniac couldn’t manage that for any length of time. Until the early twentieth century, it was a standard medical term for “alcohol addict.”

dirty pool

(“unfair treatment,” “a dirty trick”)
The opposite of fair play. Dirty pool was trickery or low-down behavior, usually committed by one individual toward another. Unlike “dirty trick,” it didn’t take the indefinite article, so it could cover multiple incidents, but in practice, it referred to a single event at least as often: “That’s dirty pool!” I’ve always assumed that it’s a reference to the game of pool (as in billiards), but I don’t know.

(in) donkey’s years

(“a very long time”)
Usually in the form of “I haven’t done that/gone there/etc. in donkey’s years.” “In a coon’s age” was another way to say the same thing. Not sure why those two animals were so immortalized.


(“melee,” “riot,” “wild game”)
I learned this word from the sports pages, where it was sometimes used in my youth to refer to an eventful baseball game. I haven’t seen it much lately, but I don’t read the sports pages as carefully as I once did. It comes from the name of a town in Ireland known for its brawling ways, and in its prime the word meant “brawl,” the bigger the better.

don’t mention it

(“you’re welcome,” “no problem”)
A polite reply to an expression of gratitude. There were a lot of them, actually: it’s (or it was) nothing, don’t give it another thought, glad to help, forget it. They were all self-effacing, aw-shucks-ma’am ways of disclaiming virtue for a generous act. “You’re welcome,” the longstanding standard, doesn’t do that. “No problem,” rapidly being supplanted by “no worries,” is closer, but not quite the same.

don’t mind if I do

(“I think I will,” “thank you”)
An affirmative reply to an offer. It seems like it must be short for “I don’t mind if I do,” but it could be “You don’t mind if I do.”

(like a) duck on a junebug

(“voraciously,” “violently”)
My parents used this one. Being like a duck on a junebug meant jumping all over something, or someone. I think they usually meant it metaphorically, but I guess you could say “Our dog was all over her Milk-Bone like a duck on a junebug.” (Wait — do they still make Milk-Bones?)


A low-rent, general term for what you’re wearing at the moment. “Glad rags” meant finery or formal wear, but “duds” suggested something more mundane. “Dud up” was used occasionally as a verb to mean deck yourself out; “dud yourself” means remove clothes, according to one of my dictionaries, but I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing it used that way. “Togs” is another old word for clothes, more associated with athletic wear, particularly for upper-class sports like golf and tennis. I’m not sure when people started saying “threads,” but we associate it firmly with hippies now.


(“moron,” “slow student”)
Just think, the alarmingly popular “for dummies” books could have been written for dunces instead, thus keeping this honorable old word alive. Dunces sat shamefacedly in the corner of the classroom and wore conical hats (dunce caps), way before wizards got all trendy. But you could call anyone a dunce; it didn’t have to be a student. Other old words for stupid person: dullard, cretin, simpleton, imbecile, birdbrain.

easy on the eyes

(“attractive, “good-looking”)
Generally applied to young women.

elbow grease

(“effort,” used in the context of manual labor)
My fifth-grade teacher used this one, but I haven’t heard it lately. Maybe still used regionally?


Even when you were outnumbered, a gun made it possible to get out of a bad situation. It took away the opponent’s advantage and made it a fair fight. The word belonged to crime fiction and was roughly contemporary with “gat.” “Iron” and “rod” were also words for gun.

fat city

This expression immediately calls to mind two other outdated synonyms: “on easy street” and “living the life of Riley.” It means you have made it big and don’t have to work any more.


Normally a petty theft. This word probably hasn’t disappeared entirely, but I’d guess it’s on the endangered list. I’m not sure why I like it so much, but somehow it sounds like what it means more than most words.

fit as a fiddle

(“in excellent physical condition,” “feeling great”)
I don’t know why a fiddle was held to be an exemplar of physical fitness; maybe it was chosen for reasons of consonance. It could also be used to describe one’s current state, as a reply to “How are you?” The expression was fairly strong, implying a certain exuberance — better than “Oh, fine.”

fit to be tied

“Fit” as in “ready” or “in need of.” The image conveyed is “so angry that physical restraint is required.” I don’t think the phrase was ever current in bondage circles, appropriate as it sounds, but I wouldn’t necessarily know if it were.

flip one’s lid

(“go nuts”)
“Lid” meaning “hat,” presumably, or “top of the head”; “flip one’s wig” was a variant. You would get so angry that the top of your head would fly off. It didn’t have to be rage, but that was the most common implication. The phrase didn’t have to imply an attack on anyone in particular; it was more a matter of “losing it” than of “going off on” someone.


An old word, from the days of highwaymen. A footpad was someone who sneaked up on you and robbed you. I’m not sure if the idea was their feet were padded so you couldn’t hear them (unlikely), or maybe “pad” is descended from the French word for “step,” “pas.”

fresh as paint

(“well-rested,” “chipper”)
This expression came to mind when I saw a bilingual “wet paint” sign this morning. “Pintura fresca” reminded me of “fresh as paint,” which was a lot like “fresh as a daisy.” I’ve also heard it used to mean “insolent,” as an elaboration of the old-fashioned meaning of “fresh” (“forward”), but I never heard “fresh as a daisy” used that way.


(“balky,” “obstinate”)
I learned this word from the King James Bible, I think. It was already archaic, or worse, but I liked it anyway. You have to look twice because it’s so close to “forward,” but it means something entirely different and has a different origin. (It’s actually short for “from-ward,” the opposite of “toward.” But it doesn’t mean “untoward,” either.) Often applied to children and animals.

get along like a house afire

(“get along great”)
No idea where this comes from, but I like it. The phrase was used mostly to describe two people meeting for the first time and hitting it off; if you had been friends for years, this expression would have sounded a little strange.

give someone a jingle

(“call or telephone someone”)
A less common synonym of “give me (etc.) a ring” or “give me a buzz.” It comes from the days when telephones actually rang or buzzed, rather than beeped or played low-fi renditions of this tune or that. Don’t mind me, I’m just an old grouch.

give someone a turn

(“startle” or “spook” someone)
As in “Don’t sneak up on me like that! You gave me quite a turn!” Or, for an antique flavor, there was “you fair gave me a turn.” It was a pretty strong expression, more than a casual “Oh, you startled me.” And its use wasn’t restricted to physical encounters, although my vague sense is that it was used more often that way. An unsettling encounter or event could also give you a turn.

“Done to a turn” meant perfectly cooked, presumably on a spit. I don’t think the two expressions are related.

give someone the gate

(“dismiss someone,” as an employee or suitor)
You don’t hear about “pink slips” much any more, either. A more elegant version of “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

give up the ghost

(“die,” “go under”)
That’s ghost as in spirit; when you die, your spirit leaves the mortal clay of your body. Etymologically, spirit is just breath, so it’s actually an elegant way to say “stop breathing.” The expression has a sonorous, biblical tone, but it could apply to a business or corporate entity as well as to a person.

go (off) on a tear

(“go nuts,” “go on a rampage”)
Maybe people still say this; it doesn’t feel quite as archaic as other expressions on the list. Or maybe “go off on a rant” has quietly replaced it.

good catch

(said of spouses, particularly husbands)
As in “She married a doctor — he’s a good catch,” which is more idiomatic than “She made (or got) a good catch.” I always supposed this one went back to fishing, not baseball, but there’s no doubt it’s some sort of sports metaphor.

good-time Charlie

(“bon vivant,” “party animal”)
I was surprised to hear this in “Love & Blessings” from the new Paul Simon CD, So Beautiful or So What — but when I looked at the lyrics booklet I was relieved. The line actually reads, “ain’t no time like a good time, Charlie.”

gracious plenty

(“abundance,” “more than one needs”)
Another one I heard from my parents. The implication was that it was more than just right, that it was a little too much, although “gracious” makes it sound like it should mean something more favorable. Sometimes it meant “you ought to be satisfied with that.”

gravy train

(source of prosperity)
“Gravy” may connote the good life, as in this expression, or poverty, as in a cracker family with nothing but grits and gravy to eat. (The gravy has to come from somewhere, of course — you can’t make it from grits.) The final stop of the gravy train is the Easy Street station (see “fat city” above).

great beyond

(“(the) hereafter”)
Where the afterlife happens.

hammer and tongs

(“with full force,” “loudly and violently”)
A charming holdover from the blacksmithing trade. I think of it as a description of people quarreling (“going at it hammer and tongs”). It’s not just raw enthusiasm; a certain amount of animus is necessary.

hard by

(“very close”)
Used only in a physical sense, I believe. A person or group was “hard by” if they were right next door, well in range. The phrase had an ominous sound, it seems to me.

have no truck with

(“have absolutely nothing to do with”)
This was a strong expression, always used in the negative. Nobody ever “had truck with,” as far as I know. I guess “truck” is a dialect form of “traffic” (as in commerce), but I’m not sure.


A strong term of contempt. A heel had no redeeming qualities; he was about as low as it got. To my ear, the word carries a further connotation: “untrustworthy.” But it was mainly used for someone who treated you especially badly or disrespectfully. A “shitheel” was what you called someone who was even lower than a heel.

hell for leather

(“at top speed,” “recklessly”)
This one always makes me think of motorcycles, but I don’t know why. Well, maybe I do. It’s a vigorous and evocative expression. Not to be confused with “hellbent,” which means “absolutely determined.”

hide nor hair

(“the slightest trace”)
“I’ve seen (neither) hide nor hair of him” means you haven’t seen him at all and have no idea where he might be. Probably a hunting term, no?

hill of beans

(“bupkes,” “negligible amount”)
Almost always used in negative expressions, as in “not worth a hill of beans” or “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.” Not quite nothing, but not enough to be satisfied with, either. Immortalized in Casablanca, uttered by the immortal Humphrey Bogart.

hit the hay

(“go to bed”)
In the old days, it wasn’t unusual for people to sleep on hay. In some quarters, hay looked pretty good compared to the mattresses available. “Hit the hay” never had a sexual connotation, as far as I can remember. It went with “I’m tired,” not “I’m horny.” (For that, you could say “roll in the hay.”) “Hit the sack” was still current in my youth, but I haven’t heard it lately. The sack presumably was filled with horsehair.


(“awkward boy”)
The dictionaries all say that this word was applied to teenage(d) boys, but I could swear that I’ve seen it used to refer to girls, too, specifically tomboys. Maybe that was just a mistake that I encountered at an impressionable age and battened onto. You did have to be an adolescent to merit this word, I think, still growing, voice changing, gawky, not yet fully formed. Is there a one-word equivalent now?


An adjective often used by churchgoers to refer to the offensively pious, but anyone unpleasantly satisfied with their own rectitude could merit the term. My nickname for Whole Foods is “Wholer-Than-Thou Foods,” so I’m doing my best to keep this one alive, but its time is past.


(“moonshine,” “liquor”)
According to Lighter, the word is derived from the name of a tribe of Alaskan Indians. It’s often used specifically for illicit liquor, but can be used affectionately to refer to any alcohol and sometimes other drugs.


(“opiates,” “dope”)
It sounded like a lively bunny, but “hop” meant a soporific, like an opiate. “Hophead” survived longer, still used into the 1960’s by outraged older Americans about the younger set.

horse sense

(“common sense”)

hue and cry

(“fuss,” “ado”)
I associate this with hunting and the chase, but I haven’t taken the trouble to look it up and see if that’s correct or just a mistaken childhood association.

I need that like I need a hole in the head

(“I really, really don’t need that”)
From Yiddish. My guess is this phrase goes back to the early twentieth century. It was already showing its age in my childhood.

in one’s cups

Contributed by Martha from Queens. A grand old phrase, this one lends a bit of dignity to a generally undignified state, because it’s old-fashioned enough to sound formal or even courtly, not to mention a touch melancholy. At the dinner table the other night, we discussed the question of euphemisms vs. nicknames. A lot of words for drunk — like “smashed” or “wasted” or “blotto” or maybe even “sozzled” — seem to revel in the condition rather than seek to avoid alluding to it. “In one’s cups” is more of a euphemism, a word that allows you to avoid saying “drunk” or at least soften the impact a little.

inasmuch as

(“because,” “due to the fact that”)
Maybe this is still current in legalese, but it seems to have disappeared from even the most formal writing. Too bad — it’s a nice, high-toned phrase. Compare “insofar as,” which has been replaced by the clumsier “to the extent that.”

Indian giver

Contributed by Liz and Lucy from Queens. I’m not sure how kids express this idea today. An Indian giver gives you something and then tries to get it back; it was a malicious word with a pronounced negative connotation. Most of the “Indian” phrases were already disused when I was a kid; you still heard this one and “Indian burn” (grabbing someone’s arm with both hands and twisting the skin in opposite directions), and maybe “Indian file” for “single file” (which seems less pejorative). It would be nice to think we’ve purged these ugly old expressions completely.


Contributed by Adam from Queens. This has a delightfully Elizabethan sound about it. The great Shakespeare lexicographer C.T. Onions defines it as “pert, saucy fellow.” It was a term of contempt even then, but became more so later, I think. According to the OED, it was an eponym; in the fifteenth century, the Duke of Suffolk as referred to as “Jack Napes” (spelling modernized). Even then, and ever after, the word meant a person who resembled an ape — but it could be a capering chimpanzee or a stolid gorilla. Over time, the chimpanzee won out.


(“inadequately trained,” “barely competent,” “half-assed”)
Suggests a certain improvisational quality, characteristic of itinerant workers or people pressed into service in an emergency. A jackleg carpenter, for example, might be able to fix your table, at least temporarily, but don’t hire him to do work that you want to last for twenty years.


Generally encountered in hard-boiled detective novels, mid-20th century. “Jane” is pretty generic, without any particular connotation. Other words for woman: “dame” (probably the most common), “broad,” “skirt,” “frail.”

the jig is up

What the cop said when he nailed an unwary criminal. It meant the bad guy had no hope of escape and had to face the law. I don’t know what kind of jig was intended, though. The dance? The tool? Websters says “jig” is an old word for “game or “trick,” so maybe it just meant the game is over.


(“fool,” “idiot”)
Contributed by Liz from Queens. She reports that her mother used it to describe herself when she made a dumb mistake. (“I’m a juggins!”)

Katy bar the door

(“anything can happen now”)
Used figuratively. “All bets are off” meant something similar. A set expression that typically followed a hypothetical (“If the levees don’t hold, it’s Katy bar the door”). In other words, something is terribly wrong with the world outside, so our best chance is to hole up in here.

keep a civil tongue in your head

(“be polite or respectful”)
This was what parents said to children when kids overdid the sass or the insults. One adult might say it to another, but most often kids were the victims. It seems rather quaint now, when the only people who talk about civility really want others to be forced to obey traditional standards of decency and decorum so they can run roughshod over them. Rudy Giuliani, the least civil man in American politics (except possibly Antonin Scalia), loved to talk about civility, but only as a way of bashing others. He wouldn’t have been caught dead respecting those who disagreed with him.

knock for a loop

Always used transitively, with a person as the object — you have to knock someone for a loop. “That really knocked me for a loop” meant “that really caught me by surprise” or maybe “that really blew me away.” Another old-time way to say the same thing was “knock someone off one’s perch,” like a parrot. I don’t know the origin.

left in the lurch

(“abandoned at the crucial moment”)
“In the lurch” meant originally “in a defenseless position,” according to Webster’s Third. You’re left in the lurch when support that you counted on deserts you and leaves you in an awkward situation. It was used of plights great and small, but it normally had some heft to it. Being left in the lurch was serious, even if temporary.

little pitchers have big ears

(“kids understand more than you think”)
Proverbial. You used this expression to caution another speaker that there were children in earshot and it would be better not to discuss the present subject in front of them. Part of the idea is that the kids wouldn’t realize that “pitchers” referred to them, but I doubt that worked very well. The “ear” of a pitcher is its handle. The meat of the expression is “big ears,” and “pitchers” is the source of the misdirection.

look daggers at

(“give a dirty look”)
It was stronger than a dirty look, actually, more venomous. It was something you did to warn or silence someone else in the group when spoken words would not be appropriate, the ocular equivalent of the kick under the table. Or it might simply express intense dislike. It’s a lovely old expression; I’m sorry it’s gone.


(“big clumsy idiot”)
I miss this one. I think you can still say “oaf,” but I fear lummox has gone from us forever.


(“inject directly into the bloodstream”)
This was still scary drug users’ slang in my childhood; it was what junkies did. By the time I was in college, it was probably on the way out. I can’t remember the last time I saw or heard anyone use the term.

man alive!

(“I’ll be damned”)
Contributed by Martha from Queens. An expression of surprise, usually good. It’s not something you say when something awful happens, rather, a touch celebratory.

mark time

(“march in place”)
Once the property of drill sergeants and phys. ed teachers. Maybe sergeants still say this (I wouldn’t know), but gym teachers don’t any more. It took me years to figure out what this phrase meant.


(“help!” “SOS”)
A classic distress call. Not as suitable for Morse Code as SOS, but great for yelling into the ship-to-shore radio. Comes from French, “m’aider” (help me), according to several dictionaries.


(“antics,” “shenanigans”)
Something kids, or at most college students, got up to. Not normally used for adults without a shading of irony. Could also apply to pranks and practical jokes. Almost any tomfoolery, in fact.


(“freeload(er),” “sponge (off)”)
Widely used both as a noun and a verb; it could even be transitive (“He mooched five dollars off me”) but usually wasn’t. A mooch didn’t go after anything big, a little money here, a dinner there — just a small-time pest. “Moocher” was also used for the noun. “Mooch along” meant “amble” or “mosey” (q.v.).


(“money,” “big bucks”)
Also spelled with an “h” on the end. A more general slang term for “money,” unlike “clam” (above), which is a substitute specifically for “dollar.” “Moola” generally suggests a lot of money; you probably wouldn’t use the word for a few dollars, but definitely for a few hundred thousand.

more than you can shake a stick at

(“a whole lot”)
I never had any idea where this phrase came from. But this morning, my girlfriend’s daughter said it came about because you can shake a stick in only one direction at a time, so if the item(s) was spread out all around you, you couldn’t shake a stick at all of it. I told her that the most logical explanation isn’t always the right one when it comes to etymology, but I vote for that one, anyway. It’s simple, plausible, and doesn’t rely on any speculative or idiosyncratic assumptions.


(“saunter,” “stroll”)
Originally this meant “depart” or “move along” (“You’d better mosey”), but I think of it more as a kind of gait or pace: to mosey is to walk slowly, as in “just moseyin’ along.” The origin is obscure, but Lighter found references as far back as 1829. The former meaning seems to have predominated in the nineteenth century.

move heaven and earth

(“do everything possible”)
Even bigger than Archimedes’s boast about what he could do with a lever, this phrase suggested maximum effort. Generally, it wasn’t used in situations involving physical labor; it was purely figurative, as in “I will move heaven and earth to see that she gets the job.” It was something you did for other people, not for yourself. Not related to “make the earth move” (i.e., have great sex).


(“toughness,” “nerve”)
It wasn’t sheer gall, but a mixture of courage and persistence that caused one to accomplish difficult things. The word was used admiringly; it was a compliment to say a person had moxie.

I believe “moxie” has New England origins. It’s the brand name of a soda created over a century ago, but I’m not sure if the name came first or the word.


Survives in “mug shot,” but it’s been a long time since anyone used this word by itself as a slang word for “face.” “Ugly mug” was a popular phrase once; the rhyme made it a natural. “Mush” was a variant. Other old words meaning the same thing: map, phiz (dates back to the eighteenth century, short for “physiognomy”), countenance, pan, puss.

mum’s the word

(“it’s a secret,” “don’t tell anyone”)
“Keep mum” is an old expression meaning “keep your mouth shut,” perhaps because the only sound you can make when your lips are compressed together is “um.” I’m pretty sure “mum’s the word” comes from that. It was a conspiratorial thing to say, a way of enlisting support by asking people to keep what you had just told them to themselves.


(“of course”)
Short for “naturally.” This was not-quite-hip slang for a while — it seems to have gotten going in the forties, according to Lighter. I remember encountering it in children’s books written in the sixties. (Anyone out there remember Trixie Belden? The Wheelers’ groom, Regan, said “Natch.”) You could use it on its own (“Natch,” he replied tersely) or end a sentence with it (We’ll go down to the pier after the fireworks, natch).


(“idiot,” “dummy”)
A lovely word, some kind of dog-Latin, I gather. Sounds vaguely like “non compos,” which makes me suspicious. The word rolls off the tongue supremely well and sounds deliciously scathing.


I’m not sure if this is related to “ankle-biter” or not. “Shaver” was used for “little boy,” but I think “nipper” could apply to either sex. “Small fry,” from an old word for baby fish, could apply to either gender and either number, singular or plural. Kids won’t know what I’m talking about, but the dog on the His Master’s Voice (RCA) record label was named Nipper.

(have) no kick coming

(“no reason to complain”)
“Kick” meant “gripe,” as in the following exchange: “How are things?” “Oh, fine, can’t kick.” If someone vexed you with an unwarranted complaint, you could retort, “You got no kick coming, bud.” Sometimes it had the sense of “you brought this on yourself” (i.e., you have no right to complain) but not necessarily. “Top kick” was World War II slang for master sergeant, but I don’t know why.

no soap

(“forget about it,” “I don’t want to hear it”)
Another old expression, though not as old, was “no dice” (“nothing doing” was yet another). I think of it as a reply to a lie or an attempt at trickery (something like “I don’t buy it”), but it could be used more generally, according to Chapman. Don’t know what soap has to do with anything.

not wrapped too tight

(“not all there”)
Not exactly the opposite of “wrapped too tight,” which meant high-strung. The state of not being wrapped too tight fell short of gibbering insanity, but it suggested a tendency toward vagueness and inattention that hindered one’s ability to function. If you got well beyond that point, we had to use other words, like “bonkers” or “barking mad.”

Old Scratch

(“the Devil”)
Also Old Nick, not to be confused with St. Nick. Speak of him and he shall appear.

on one’s uppers

(“flat broke,” “out of money”)
Shoes are a common vehicle among metaphors for penury; there’s also “down at heel.” Both suggest worn soles; “on one’s uppers” suggests the sole has worn away entirely. (“Well-heeled,” on the other hand, means “wealthy.”) But then there’s “stony broke,” which has nothing to do with shoes (I think). I don’t know how stones got into it. “Tapped out” probably refers to a beer keg, and “busted” means something entirely different now, despite Johnny Cash’s memorable recording.

on the up and up

(“legitimate,” “aboveboard”)
This phrase was usually applied to a business deal or a general situation, but I think it could also be applied to a person, meaning “honest” or “trustworthy.” Most often, the phrase was “everything’s on the up and up,” meaning you could proceed with confidence; no one was trying to cheat you. “On the square” and “on the level” meant the same thing. I’m not sure when this expression had its day; it’s probably twentieth century, but how early I’m not sure. It was current but fading during my youth.


(“quick inspection”)
Often in the form “give it a once-over.”

paint the town red

(“go on a spree,” “have a wild time”)
First half of the twentieth century, possibly older. I’m not sure if the point was painting the town was a crazy thing to do, or if red was associated particularly with carousing. The phrase conveys a cheerful determination to have a good time, a willingness to work at it.

pardon my French

(“forgive me for using bad language”)
Also “Excuse my French.” You may still hear older people use this one, but even to my middle-aged generation it sounds old-fashioned. The expression rests on two assumptions: 1. That there are offensive words that can be used only at certain times around certain people (usually adult men); and 2. Anything risqué or salacious is associated with French culture. Both feel pretty quaint now, especially the latter, which long served as an article of faith among our British forebears. But the first assumption also seems to be going the way of the dodo.


(“anemic,” “sickly”)
Two syllables, in case you were wondering. I remember thinking of this term as a little sinister — the kind of thing a villain says to the girl before he drugs her and forces her into white slavery. (“You’re looking a bit peaked, my dear,” he said with a malign chuckle.) But the word was innocent enough, I suppose. I was never sure where it came from, so I looked it up. Turns out there was a verb, “to peak,” still remembered in the phrase “peak and pine,” that meant to grow weak or waste away, so it’s just a past participle.


Yes, kids, there really was a song called “Jeepers Creepers, Where’d You Get Those Peepers.” (“Jeepers” has gone out of style, too.) A slang word for eyes still at least somewhat current in 1950, but gone by my youth. Other words for eyes: lamps, orbs. The more poetic preferred “windows to the soul.”


(“hard to please,” “selective”)
I’m not sure why, but this word sounds like what it means more than most. The dictionary will tell you that it is also spelled without the “s,” but I never heard anybody say it that way. Maybe that’s a British pronunciation.


So many wonderful words for “intoxicated.” This one goes back to the early twentieth century, I would guess.

pin someone’s ears back

(“scold,” “dress down”)
When I encounter this phrase (not very often any more), I picture a Katzenjammer Kid getting verbally abused, the force of the wind from Der Captain’s bawling not only pushing their hair and ears back, but actually distorting the skin on their faces. It takes a really loud and thorough scolding to pin someone’s ears back. Sometimes it could also refer to putting someone (especially a child) in their place, but high volume was a requirement.


As in “knocked off your pins.” Never used in the singular, as far as I can remember. Nothing to do with “neat as a pin.” “Dogs” was another word for “feet” rarely or never used in the singular: “Oh, my poor dogs. I’ve been walking all day.” Also “tootsies,” which was children’s language often used by adults.

plain as the nose on your face

(“painfully obvious”)
Variant: “plain as day.” In Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee says “plain as a pikestaff.” And yet, no matter how obvious it is, there are always some people who just don’t (or won’t) get it, which is why we need such expressions.


Maybe you still hear this one, but it sounds outdated to me. An affectionate term for a dog, either as direct address or a normal noun (as in “That’s a good-looking pooch you’ve got there.”) It sounds related to “poodle,” and the image it conjures in my mind is in fact a stylized miniature poodle. Maybe it was used more often for smaller dogs, but I think of it as applicable to any size or breed.

powder one’s nose

(“go to the bathroom”)
One of dozens of euphemisms for that fundamental act we all must do. This expression was for the ladies, usually out on a date, and was generally understood to signal a regrouping period for both sides. The sexes separate and assess progress, and it was the girls that left the table and went to the powder room, or to powder their noses.

Euphemisms for going to the bathroom . . . Here are two family heirlooms referring to male micturation: “drain the radiator” (from my grandfather) and “shake the dew off the lily” (from my great-uncle).

pretty penny

(“lot of money”)
As in “That’ll cost a pretty penny.” Often said in a censorious tone, suggesting that whatever it is isn’t worth the money.


(“college president”)
Or “university president,” as we would say nowadays. The provost was never called a “provvie,” as far as I know. This word hasn’t been current for at least 75 years; it popped into my forebrain out of deep storage yesterday. You just never know what the sandhogs are going to toss up.

pull one’s leg

(“kid,” “joke”)
“You’re pulling my leg” once was a popular expression. I haven’t heard it in quite a while, but it was not uncommon in my childhood, and I didn’t have the impression it was antiquated then. The implication was the same as “You’re joking,” or “You’re kidding (or “shitting”) me” : it was a way of expressing incredulity. To my ear, pulling someone’s leg always involved some attempt to deceive, though perhaps only ritual or half-hearted.


As in “the quick and the dead,” which I learned from the Apostle’s Creed. The idea survives in our use of “quick” (as a noun) to denote the sensitive flesh under our fingernails. You know it’s alive, because it hurts when you nip it.

rake over the coals

You did it to a person. Raking someone over the coals was like giving them hell, or giving them what for (there’s an old euphemism). Stronger than “dressing them down.” It was something a superior would do to a subordinate.

rearrange your face

(“beat the hell out of you”)
We said this when I was a kid as a prelude to a fight. One kids says to the other, “I’ll rearrange your face!” It’s related, I suppose, to the older threat: “Your mother won’t recognize you.” I don’t hang around on the schoolyard much, but I haven’t heard any kids say this in a long time.

right as rain

(“absolutely right”)
Contributed by Martha from Queens. Why rain? I don’t know, but Michael Quinion does. Almost always used of persons rather than ideas, statements, etc.


(“o.k.,” “got it”)
World War II military slang. According to Chapman, it was used first in England in the 1930’s, and it comes from the phonetic alphabet: “roger” meant “r,” for “received.”

sad sack

Had a specifically military use — a “sad sack” was a beaten-down grunt with no verve or vitality. There was a comic book about a soldier named Sad Sack; I was surprised to learn it’s still being published on-line.

said a mouthful

(“got that right”)
A fixed phrase, almost always in the form “You (She, etc., but rarely I) said a mouthful.” It meant “ain’t that the truth,” or “Yes indeed.” It was probably on the way out by the time I was a kid, but it certainly hadn’t disappeared.


(“surgeon,” “doctor”)
In the days before laparoscopic surgery, the practice of medicine involved a lot more brute force. This word was a relatively jocular acknowledgment of that. I’ve always assumed that Dr. McCoy’s nickname on Star Trek, “Bones,” was derived from “sawbones,” but if there are any Trekkers out there who can prove me wrong, please speak up.


(“ten dollars,” “ten dollar bill”)
Contributed by Liz from Queens. A fin was a five, and a double sawbuck was a twenty. Why sawbuck? “Sawbuck” is an old word for sawhorse. The legs of a sawhorse form an “X,” ten in Roman numerals. So say three fine dictionaries, and who am I to disagree? The custom of naming bills by their portraits (“Jacksons,” “Benjamins”) is modern. Using “spot” as a suffix for five and ten dollar bills (“five-spot,” “ten-spot”) has pretty much disappeared (it was never used for any other denomination, as I recall — no one ever said “one-spot” or “twenty-spot”). A “c-note” (for “century”) was a hundred-dollar bill.

say uncle

(“concede,” “admit defeat”)
Already on life support in my boyhood, but one did run across the expression in books and had to know what it meant. An old schoolyard challenge. If you had been bested (or worsted) in a fight, you could get the aggressor to lay off by saying the word “uncle.” Baboons show their butts, but we’re higher primates. Not sure if it’s related to a more modern taunt, “Who’s your daddy?”

(the) scales fell from my eyes

(“I suddenly understood what was really going on”)
This was a melodramatic, rather formal phrase, suitable for use in overheated dramas or ladies’ novels. It denotes a moment of revelation, a persistent blindness banished at a stroke.


I’m not sure there is an up-to-date equivalent for “scamp”; “rascal” sounds pretty old-fashioned, too. A scamp was a mischief-maker more than a troublemaker, and the word carried some affection, however exasperated. It was the kid everyone liked even though he was mouthy and didn’t always play by the rules.

school of hard knocks

A mythical institution where one learned the harder and meaner lessons of life. Use of this term often implied an upbringing on the streets, or at least a good deal of time spent there.

see my etchings

(“come up to my place”)
At least in novels and comic strips, “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” meant “Do you want to get it on?” Uttered only at the end of a date, by the man, it was a thinly veiled invitation with a strong suggestion of carnality. Why etchings? I don’t know.

set store by

(“take seriously”)
Resembles “put a lot of faith in.” You set store by something that you count on or value highly.


(indefinitely large number)
Now we have so many words for indescribably vast numbers, like googol, that have taken over the language. Giga- is on everyone’s lips, like mega- ten years ago; tera- and even exa- turn up more and more. Big has gotten bigger, or, if you prefer, smaller.

shake a leg

(“hurry up,” “move it”)
Compare “step on it” (as in an accelerator pedal) for “go as fast as you can.” Both phrases were understood figuratively as well as literally, although I would say “step on it” always retained a fairly strong association with motor vehicles.


(“be indecisive,” “waffle”)
Probably related to “shall I” as “willy-nilly” comes from “will I, nill I” — i.e., whether I like it or not.

shoemaker, stick to your last

(“do what you do best”)
Proverbial. The last was part of the cobbler’s equipment, sort of a foot-shaped mannequin. The basic idea of this exhortation is that you shouldn’t mess around with unfamiliar occupations or practices. Stay with your bread and butter.


A noun. Often used in the phrase “get some shuteye.” “Forty winks” referred to a nap. When I was a kid, we said, “Catch some z’s,” meaning “get some sleep,” but I haven’t heard that expression in years. It comes from the comic strip convention that indicates snoring with the letter “z,” which I believe is still in force.


(“toss,” “throw”)
A word of uncertain origin from the late eighteenth century, says Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. I’d say it was defunct by the mid-twentieth. This may have been primarily a Briticism, but I’m sure I heard it once or twice in my childhood.

sight for sore eyes

(“welcome sight”)
“You’re a sight for sore eyes” meant “Boy, am I glad to see you!” I realize that meaning may not seem obvious to younger people, but there you are. (The use of “boy” as an interjection to open a sentence probably doesn’t seem obvious to younger people, either.) Don’t confuse it with “eyesore,” a still current term that usually refers to an ugly or dilapidated man-made structure.


(“flee,” “run like hell”)
According to Partridge, this lovely and evocative word was born in our Civil War, and I believe I learned it from a recording of a Civil War song, or perhaps a parody of one, like the parody of “Just before the Battle, Mother” my cousin taught me:

Just before the battle, mother,
I was drinking mountain dew
When I heard the Yanks a-coming
Lord, I turned my tail and flew.

“Skedaddle” had a local meaning — the act of getting away from a short-term menace — and a more permanent sense of “get the hell out of town.” A later, equally charming slang term for the latter meaning was “absquatulate” (probably related to “abscond,” which applies specifically to escaping with the proceeds of a theft or embezzlement).


(“eccentric person”)
This use goes back to the early twentieth century, I think: “Ain’t he a sketch?” I’m not sure if it meant he was a little sketchy mentally or what.

spindle, fold or mutilate

A casualty of the paperless society, I guess. Maybe no one cares what you do with your checks any more (among those of us who still write them), but bankers were very stuffy about it once upon a time. If it said, “Do not spindle, fold, or mutilate,” you knew it was official.


No one says “cut out” any more, either. Make like a tree and leave, anyone? Oh, to be young again . . .

stand the gaff

(“take punishment,” “take the heat OR pressure”)
“Gaff” means, among other things, an ordeal, according to Webster’s Third. Standing the gaff suggests enduring the rigors of a particular job or event, and was used often in the negative to explain why someone had to drop out or step aside.


(“long, tedious speech”)
A great nineteenth-century word presumably derived from the act of winding a watch. Often referred specifically to political speeches, but could apply to any public oration. In those days, being lectured was a common form of entertainment, and many public speakers were long-winded.


(“persistence,” “commitment”)
I never liked this word, and now it seems to be gone. I recall that when my tenth-grade English teacher used it, I dismissed it as substandard (I was an obstreperous youth), but I suppose it was a real word; I had heard and read it before it came up in class. It’s really hokey, if you ask me. We have a rich and varied vocabulary; such awkward, faux-folksy compounds aren’t needed.


(“jail,” “prison”)
“In stir” was how it normally ran. He’s in stir; my life in stir, like that. Survives in the expression “stir crazy.” The most charming use I recall came from a couplet from a poem in MAD magazine about a depraved convict:

No life in stir awaits you, pal;
You won’t be rotting there.
The legislature’s changed the law,
They’re bringing back the chair.

So many slang terms for “prison,” old and new: slammer, chokey, can, clink, jug, pokey, hoosegow, big house, pen, brig, coop, lock-up.

stone’s throw

(“short distance”)
Not to be confused with a country mile.

straight from the horse’s mouth

(“direct from the source,” “authoritative”)
I don’t know what the horse had to do with it; this expression predates Mr. Ed. If there’s any connection with the Trojan horse, it eludes me. It does rhyme with source.


(“great,” “marvelous”)
I never understood quite how “swell” (is well?) acquired this meaning, considering that it is equally likely to portend growing prosperity or deathly illness. It seems like it must be related to “swell” meaning “society figure,” but I’m not sure which came first. Typical usage: “It was swell,” or “She was a swell old girl,” or “That was a swell cook-out.” Definitely a compliment.

thick as thieves

(“really close”)
Said of close friends without any connotation of criminality or other dubious behavior. It seems to me that the expression was more commonly used to talk of a pair than a larger group, but I can’t swear to that. There’s another old saying about honor among thieves which suggests that however chummy they may be, they don’t trust each other much.

throw the book at

(“punish harshly”)
This phrase was probably born in a courtroom, perhaps with an occult connection to the “letter of the law,” but maybe it comes out of the classroom. I always picture a judge firing the appropriate volume of Corpus Juris Secundum at a defendant’s head, a pretty severe punishment all by itself if it connects.


My impression is that this word was used mainly by older men bemoaning their cardiac health, but maybe a thorough survey would find a roughly equal number of positive or neutral usages.


(“drunk,” “alcoholic”)
Another word for “drunkard,” which you don’t hear any more, alas — it was an evocative word. “Pot” was one of many words meaning drinking vessel (“a pot of beer”). When I hear this word, I picture a red-faced gentleman insouciantly downing his drink and demanding another.

(in a) trice

(“(in an) instant”)
“In a trice” meant “immediately” or “right away,” as in “We’ll have your car fixed in a trice.” A more poetic equivalent was “in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” In my youth we used “in a jiffy” or “in no time flat” in exactly the same way; now they too are archaic but slightly less so.

tuckered out

(“exhausted,” “worn out”)
Pooped, all in, spent, etc. If you were really, really tired, you were “plumb tuckered out,” “plumb” meaning “completely” or “utterly.” Very definitely a rural expression.


(“let go,” “take your hands off”)
A favorite of wronged heroines in melodramas. A victim of an unwanted sexual advance might say, “Unhand me!” (Or an onlooker might say “Unhand that woman!” and so forth.) It could be used against muggers and other such thugs as well. Often accompanied by a powerful swing of an umbrella or handbag.

An oddity about this word: it is not the opposite of “hand” used as a verb, as in “hand someone into a taxi.” “Hand” in that sense has no connotation of force or coercion. But “unhand me” is used only when the attention is unwelcome.

watch the fur fly

(“there’s gonna be a fight”)
Think of two cats or dogs going at it, not of women throwing their minks at each other. Of course, the conflict is usually figurative, as in a nasty argument. The phrase does evoke spectatorship, and may be uttered with a certain glee, or at least zest.

wet behind the ears

(“inexperienced,” “green”)
I’m not sure why this term means what it means. Washing thoroughly behind one’s ears was once regarded as a mark of good hygiene, but I don’t see any particular connection. As you might expect, it was generally applied to young people just starting out in life.


(“very pale”)
This must be related to Macbeth’s objurgation, “cream-fac’d loon.” Now I guess we would say “pasty-faced,” although that sounds a little archaic, too.

whole ball of wax

(“absolutely everything,” “all of it”)
A handy expression when you want to step back from the particulars (old word for “details”) and talk about the subject at hand in its entirety, or as a whole. Sort of like “kit and caboodle,” “whole shootin’ match,” or “whole nine yards.” A bit slangy. I’m not sure how wax gets into it.


(“outer garment,” “coat,” etc.)
Elegant ladies used to have wraps, and their elegant gentlemen used to retrieve them. It could be a fur coat or a plain shawl — whatever she wore to go outside. Not the same as “wrapper,” which meant “bathrobe,” suitable for indoor use only.

We have “outerwear” but not “innerwear,” “underwear,” but not “overwear” (aside from overcoats). Such a slippery language.


Still fairly common in my youth, but I haven’t heard it in years. Presumably derived from “zero.”

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