Not For Mixed Company

‘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.


  1. Small correction, it’s “Hoist BY his own petard”, and the word “hoist” in this context is NOT the same verb one uses for lifting things with a rope (which is why the preposition “on” is incorrect), it’s actually a form of the verb Hoise, which basically means “hurt”. In modern terms, it means “hurt by your own bomb.” But it’s an excellent example of a word that is ONLY used in a particular expression. I know of a couple of others that unfortunately I always forget when the topic comes up.

    Although tangentially, that reminds me of expressions that people repeat without understanding them, and then they mess then up because they’ve only heard them, but don’t understand them. Thus “For all intents and purposes” gets mis-quoted in all its nails-on-the-chalkboard glory as “for all intensive purposes” by people who don’t realize that what they’ve said makes no sense whatsoever.

      1. Ah, I just remembered another one that drives me up the wall, because people hear it, but then write it phonetically, and don’t understand the meaning:

        Toe the line.

        It means to follow orders and do what is expected of you on your best behavior, even if you don’t want to. And it refers to standing in military formation with your toes on an imaginary line on the ground. (It’s usually said to someone who isn’t doing this, as in “You’d better toe the line mister, or I’ll have you court martialed.”)

        Knowing this, it therefore drives me up the wall when people write “Tow the line.”

    1. Funny – whenever I hear or read “hoist by his own petard”, I associate it with Procrustes, because of a Star Trek short story I read many years ago, “The Procrustean Petard”. It was kind of crazy, but funny at the same time.

      1. I wrote a short erotic (Well, Erotic if you’re into that kind of thing) where a friend of mine is captured and molested by her main character – a cyborg villainess from the future – and the title was Petard.

        Considering it was a little throw-away story for her amusement, it kinda bugs me that it’s my most popular story on DeviantArt.

  2. Well, there’s the expression “the exception proves the rule” where the original meaning of “proves” was “tests” as in “is this rule valid”.

  3. Language is fascinating. Always. Bring it on. It is also a fine cultural anthropology to watch words, slang, and meaning shift. But then, I sat riveted through all thirteen episodes of “The Story of English”, before I hit the double digit age.
    Also, mom read the annotated Shakespeare to me as bedtime stories. She explained all the meanings of words that even the annotations didn’t cover. Petard was one of them. So while the kids at school were talking about the latest SNL sketch, I was talking about being tossed aside by one’s own bomb. Strangely, this was far more alarming to my teachers than the SNL sketches.

    “In mixed company” originally meant adult men and women. Later, around the turn of the 20th century, it morphed into adults and children. Now it refers to political affiliations, if it’s used at all.

    1. Learning a lot of my English from old books, I still think of adult men and women when I see ‘In mixed company’.

      Cedar, please do continue with this. It’s interesting.

    2. It refers to any interaction with groups that maintain different manners. When society as a whole concludes that there is no moral force behind such a practice, you see less people practicing such.

      I try to. Here, I don’t much discuss fanfic, and I try to be careful when I do. I also try to follow a best practice of the Bar, don’t drag in business that will hurt the publisher.

      I also try and moderate my political speech here, when I remember.

      When I speak with children, I try to remember how little I know about what their parents are comfortable with me saying.

      As for adults, it is generally more a matter of me be uncomfortable saying a thing at all than me being uncomfortable saying a thing to a woman.

  4. “As proud as a hog on ice” meaning someone who’s about to find out that they can’t go anywhere without looking foolish. “That dog won’t hunt” suggests that the idea presented is, well, balderdash. “As many [item] as Carter has liver pills,” is another one that comes to mined. “To kick off the traces” probably leaves most people scratching their heads nowadays. “Sparking” for the quick-kiss phase of courting may also be a tad out of use today.

  5. Heh. I sort of assumed hoist with your own petard involved being hung with your own rope or on your own scaffold or some such, involving some sort of, well, lifting involved with cordage and maybe pulleys and such. At least as a metaphor we all had it right.

    Yes, more would be fun.

  6. As I prepare to go off for my weekly galumph, I remember being delighted to learn that the phrase “steaming horses” was NOT a poetic allusion or hyperbole. They really DO “steam” in cool weather after a hard ride. As in, tendrils of mist. See also “rode hard and put away wet”. (I do try to towel off my horse if he gets too damp…but he still looks like he’s been in a washing machine.)

    1. As I understand it, damp is OK, but if you get him really sweaty, so that he’s wet all over, you’re supposed to walk him until he cools down and the sweat starts to dry. This is mostly for storing the horse in a stall, however, and is less important if you’re turning him out to graze. It’s to prevent leg cramps.

      1. That’s where the “all in a lather” phrase that’s gone much out of use comes in. All that sweat and dirt and all. Ask a young person these days, most like they aren’t able to connect it with anything horselike. *chuckle*

        As for the original question, go right on Miss Cedar. Etymology’s always been a hobby of mine (along with the odd detour into the Classics- Livy, etc). The English language and idiom is fascinating and well worth a further look. *grin*

    2. Hmm. Roman poetry likes to compare horses to volcanoes, but I was thinking just their breath, not their whole bodies. But volcanoes steam in other places than just the mouth of the volcano, so… it’s a better poetic image than I thought.

  7. I wish we’d return to that “mixed company” concept. At some point I think people decided that there was ultimate virtue in being honest about their thoughts. But why, other than it’s just lazy?

    To answer the question, a repeating subject of how language changes and what might be anachronistic would be interesting and useful.

  8. Let’s see. “Strong suit” — from bridge. Arrows were not “fired” until after the invention of guns. “Low-hanging fruit” may still conjure up fruit trees, but does “windfall”?

    1. Or “cherry picking.” Although “go hoe your own row,” probably makes sense, but not “we’re in the short rows.” One I hear locally, when someone finishes a task is “stick a fork in me” or “calf rope” (with hands raised in the air).

  9. Georgette Heyer used “make love” to mean flirting. She was early twentieth century, I believe, writing about Regency England.

    I few years back we got dogs. I was out with Bear one day and he was doing more galumphing than I needed and I thought how I had to get him on a short leash. And went, “Oh!” (But quietly so he didn’t hear me.)

    1. In one of the Narnia books the youngest girl made love sweetly with their guests.

      Okay, I’m not entirely sure the word “sweetly” was involved but what she actually did was served them tea and was innocently charming… she was too young to flirt.

          1. We would probably say now “making up to somebody.” And yes, it’s a shame that we can’t use this expression for someone just being charming and having a winning way with people.

  10. “the point of dating moved at some point from ‘getting to know you’ to ‘getting in your pants’”

    And now, of course, it’s back to “getting to know you”…just with the added presumption that you’ve been bumping genitals with each other for a period of at least weeks, and now it’s time to learn things like one another’s full names.

    “Mixed company”, of course, is and pretty much always has been the state of being in which one must be particularly mindful of contemporary social taboos. Once, it was about mixed sexes. Later, it was about mixed ages. Now, it mostly concerns mixed philosophies

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