I was in a meeting yesterday and someone used the phrase “from soup to nuts.” The context: an older (and that’s saying a lot because I’m pretty old) colleague was explaining the process for planning a type of event and how one part of the process involved making apparent every detail, “from soup to nuts.”
That isn’t an expression I’d heard in a while. Though I know in the past it’s been a common part of our lexicon. I began to wonder about its origin (when I should have been, ahem, paying attention during the meeting). According to thestraightdope.com, which references The Dictionary of Idioms:
Origin: For centuries, any foods served at the beginning or end of a meal stood for the entire thing: the start and finish and everything in between. This expression was “from eggs to apples” and “from pottage to cheese.” In the United States in the middle of the 20th century, the expression developed into “from soup to nuts.” At many meals, soup is often the first course and a dessert with nuts is sometimes the last. The expression does not have to refer only to meals, however. It could be the selection of goods for sale or classes offered.
This got me wondering about other expressions that we know but don’t really use anymore (and their origins) – you know, something that you can clearly hear your mom or dad saying. I posed this question to a few people around the office and here are ones they came up with (along with what I found online as possible explanations for their original meaning):
In the twentieth century, Americans were able to cut the mustard, that is, “to do what is needed.” The first evidence comes from O. Henry in 1904: “So I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard.”
It is one of our most puzzling expressions. Does it have to do with cultivating or harvesting the mustard plant? Does it have to do with the slang expression be the proper mustard, that is, “be the real thing,” or be all to the mustard, “be very good”? Or might it mean “exceed the standard,” where cut means “surpass” or “excel,” and mustard is really the muster, or “examination,” as in the old expression pass muster? All these explanations have been seriously advanced by those who cut the mustard in lexicography, but they are only guesses.
It has a criminal background, and those that used to steal from people in crime ridden London in the olden days… they used to literally have wires to trip people up which pulled on their leg, then someone else took their valuables whilst they were feeling rather compromised on the floor.
Over time this stumbling, mishap and the comical effect of someone falling over came to be adapted slightly to making fun of someone in general, and hence the origin of the phrase.
A ringer is a horse substituted for another of similar appearance in order to defraud the bookies. This word originated in the US horse-racing fraternity at the end of the 19th century. The word is defined for us in a copy of the Manitoba Free Press from October 1882:
“A horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree is called a ‘ringer.'”
‘Heavens to Murgatroyd’ is American in origin and dates from the mid 20th century. The expression was popularized by the cartoon character Snagglepuss – a regular on the Yogi Bear Show in the 1960s, and is a variant of the earlier ‘heavens to Betsy’.
The first use of the phrase wasn’t by Snagglepuss but comes from the 1944 film Meet the People. It was spoken by Bert Lahr, best remembered for his role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Snagglepuss’s voice was patterned on Lahr’s, along with the ‘heavens to Murgatroyd’ line.
I couldn’t, though, find the origin for an old-school slang expression that is one of my favorites (and was trotted out occasionally by a good friend, much to my amusement):
As in, “If gay marriage isn’t legalized in CA soon, someone’s going to eat a knuckle sandwich.”
Got any on-the-verge-of-extinction phrases you’d like to add to the list?