‘Not fit for mixed company’, my friend commented, and then stopped and thought about what he had just said to me. For one thing, he knows full well I have heard it all, and for another, what does that mean, anymore? In our modern, fast culture, where kids are both held back and over-coddled, they are also pushed hard to grow up too fast, with adults saying things around them that would have a Victorian Matron at least pretending to blush. It got us thinking about the language, and how sayings that once meant something are now either wholly different, or have meanings lost in the mists of time.
I’m shacking up with him, he pointed out, which would make me his shack job, a pejorative I had never heard before, and which I don’t care for now that I have. He laughed and said, “come here and give me some sugar.” That led to a discussion about other phrases for affection, like smooching, which has been replaced in the younger set by the Harry Potter inspired snogging, which just evokes runny noses to me. The old word necking confused me as a younger girl, as it seemed like an awkward way to do things, but adults were weird, anyway! And as I read old-fashioned books like my parent’s Western novels, then grew into reading more modern ones, I was startled to find that making love meant far different things as time went on.
When did it change? I’m not really sure… but I do know that in the 1822 New Monthly Magazine, making love was not a reference to sex. “He understands the art and mystery of his own profession, which is book-making: what right has anyone to expect or require him to do more – to make a bow gracefully on entering or leaving a room, to make love charmingly, or to make a fortune at all?” Looking at the Google Ngram, the use of the word is sparing until just following 1950, when it shoots up along with the rise of sexuality as the advent of the birth control pill changed everything.
There are a plethora of expressions that made it into our vernacular, like ‘Here be dragons,’ ‘the cut of his jib,’ ‘three sheets to the wind,’ some of which you will still see used, even though very few people know what they mean any longer. The day when any travel involved sails, rope, wind and water has passed, but remains with us in the times we say the words. ‘Here be dragons’ was a phrase coined by a novelist, almost certainly, possibly Dorothy Sayers, one of my favorite
liars writers, who has a character see “hic dracones’ on the edge of a map.
‘Hoist on his own petard,’ which I erroneously thought was a reference to pirate ships, when I thought about it at all, is actually a reference to blowing oneself up with a weapon you intended for another, using the phrase finder, “ A petard is, or rather was, as they have long since fallen out of use, a small engine of war used to blow breaches in gates or walls.” How many of our favorite sayings are fictional, really? ‘Sword of Damocles’ is a phrase invented possibly by Cicero, although he attributed it to an earlier writer, Timaeus (contributed by Bethany MacLean).
When I asked around for other phrases, Mike Kabongo contributed ‘don’t touch that dial’ which I instantly heard in a 1950s radio announcer voice, but I am odd enough to have enjoyed listening to those old shows on tape. Which is another thing our youth might have trouble remembering, if not now, certainly in another ten years. I know 8-tracks are already faded from the world.
Dating: when it was just exploration and innocence… when was that? Well, running a whole string of related words and phrases through the google ngram tool yielded some interesting results. Words used: involved with, dating, engagement, going steady, going out, courting, pitching woo, bundling, take out. While the word and essence has remained the same, the point of dating moved at some point from ‘getting to know you’ to ‘getting in your pants’ and that could be said of either sex.
One phrase that has adapted to changing times is “Don’t get your knickers in a twist,’ which seems refreshingly old-fashioned when compared to the modern, and bluntly graphic, ‘don’t get your panties in a bunch.’ This article had a very funny take on the term, plus chocolate bars…
Returning to outmoded forms of travel (thank you Susie Laurent Pierce) we find ‘putting the cart before the horse’ and ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,’ the first seems obvious, but today’s cultured people might not know that to guess (very accurately, if you know what you are doing) a horse’s age and thereby, it’s value, you must take a look in his mouth. If the teeth are all worn down, he is very old, worthless, and you shouldn’t pay too much. If someone is giving you one… well, keep in mind you’ll need a backhoe and the proverbial 40 acres to dispose of the body! ‘The horse you rode in on’ (hat tip to Morgen Kirby) which is usually prefaced by a vulgarity, seems to have originated in the 1950s, according to this.
Back at the beginning of this rambling essay, I was begging the question from you, asking you to accept what I was saying.. that our language shifts. Confused? Lars Walker pointed out that we use ‘begging the question’ in the opposite of it’s original intent most of the time. Princeton University points out, “More specifically, petitio principii refers to arguing for a conclusion that has already been assumed in the premise, in effect “begging” the listener to accept the “question” (proposition) before the labor of logic is undertaken.” And now I will beg another indulgence from you all, in spite of the rambling nature of this post… would you like to see more? I have been supplied through the efforts of friends and acquaintances with far more phrases than I could put into this post, and I am now thinking I could do a series, perhaps one a month or so, featuring outdated, misunderstood, or just plain funny idioms.