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Commentary: Common terms and phrases often have quirky backstory

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Dr. Lucas Boyd, Columnist

Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground Academy. He lives in Franklin and may be contacted at coondogspress@bellsouth.net.

Winston Churchill called the ordinary English sentence “a noble thing.” And, indeed, it is. 

We have a rich language. It borrows freely from other tongues and is in constant evolution. 

Each year the Oxford English Dictionary publishes a list of new words and phrases that have come into common use. We use them, new and old, without giving much thought to their etymology, i.e., how they came to be. Many have interesting evolutionary stories.

For instance, to gerrymander is to divide an area into voting districts that give an advantage to one party in an election.  

This word was coined in 1812 in Massachusetts. Two state officials were looking at a map of newly drawn districts when one of them noticed that a district had the shape of a lizard. He asked, “How’s that for a salamander?” to which the other replied, “It’s more like a Gerrymander.”  

Elbridge Gerry was governor at that time.

A pyrrhic victory is a victory that is so costly that it is actually a defeat. This term was coined in 280 B.C.  

Pyrrhus, king of Epirus (Greece), had invaded the Italian peninsula. After winning a bloody battle, he lamented, “Another such victory and we are undone.”

Many are familiar with the phrase “to be read the riot act.” If you hear something such as “she really read him the riot act,” you know that person has been put on notice and is in serious trouble.

This expression comes from 18th century England as they sought to quell riotous activity. In 1715, Parliament enacted the Riot Act, which made it a felony for 12 or more people to assemble to disturb the public peace.  

The act provided that a magistrate had to come before the assembled folk and read the act to them, thereby informing them that they would be charged if they did not disperse.  

It was not uncommon for mobs to try to get around being charged by throwing the magistrate into the sea or river before he could read the act.

The expression means the same thing today, i.e., the person(s) to whom it’s directed has gotten out of line and needs to change their behavior.

A shavetail refers to a neophyte, a beginner, a novice, or an inexperienced person. You do not hear this term much outside the military, where newly commissioned second lieutenants are called “shavetails.”  

It goes back to the time when mules were used to move supplies and artillery pieces. New mules had to be trained to do this special work and had to be watched for erratic behavior. So that the mule drivers could identify these newcomers, the hair was shaved off at the base of their tails.

A back bencher could be said to be a shavetail in the political realm. It comes from the seating arrangement in the English House of Commons, which still relegates newer members to the rear benches.

It’s bad luck to light three on a match refers to the lighting of cigarettes. I heard this a lot growing up, when smoking was much more prevalent. It’s rare now.

It comes from World War I soldiers sharing a match while standing sentry duty at night. The claim was that by the time the lighted match got to the third cigarette, a German sniper could have the group in his sights with disastrous results.

To toe the line means to obey the rules or to conform.  

When the English House of Commons began meeting, opposing factions sat on benches facing each other with an open space in between. In a debate on an issue, members who had the floor would come to the front of their respective benches. 

In those early years, members carried swords and it was not uncommon for them to be drawn during a spirited debate. So, to avoid bloodshed, lines were painted on the floor in front of each set of benches beyond which the speakers could not come.  

The distance between was such that persons standing behind those lines could not reach each other with their swords. Thus, if a speaker “toed the line,” he obeyed the rules. The lines are still there, although there’s been no swordfight in the House of Commons for quite some time.

A blue blood is a person of noble descent or the member of a high social group.  It goes back to medieval times, when aristocrats (especially the women) did not have to work in or be exposed to the elements. 

The veins in the hands of those who were of fair complexion were blue, hence the designation.

A blue law is a puritanical law designed to regulate Sunday activities.  They originally were called “blue-stocking” laws in 17th-century England.  

In that era, men wore stockings on their lower legs. These coverings were a natural white when bought and then dyed (usually black) by the purchaser.  Puritans tended to use cheaper dyes that faded to a blue shade with washing.  “Stocking” was eventually dropped.

When Puritans got control of the government, as they did after the English Civil War, they passed numerous laws outlawing all sorts of recreational activities, e.g., dancing, card playing, theater and even bear-baiting, in which hounds attacked a chained bear. It was claimed that it was not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the onlookers.

So, any law to enforce certain moral standards is a blue law.

Of course, these nine items do not even scratch the surface of our language.  Maybe some more can come later.

Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground

Academy. He lives in Franklin and may be contacted at coondogspress@bellsouth.net.

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