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  • Jack McDevitt

Blog #45

Why You Say It, by Webb Garrison, is an intriguing collection of why certain phrases have taken hold in our language. For example, the term pipe dream was connected with the use of opium. People using opium talk crazy. So an idea that sounds crazy, like Einstein’s claim that the energy of a system equals its mass times light speed squared might easily be described, at its beginning, as a pipe dream. Or we might be talking about a real pipe dream.

Kid McCoy was an exceedingly talented boxer during the 1890s. But he looked friendly and amiable. Certainly not threatening. And he lived in a time when there was no TV or movies. So bullies who ran into him in a bar were not likely to recognize him until they started trouble and ended up on their backs. Holy cats, Batman, he was the real McCoy.

Jackpot is a term derived from poker. If we’re playing draw poker, someone has to hold at least a pair of jacks in order to open the bidding. If everyone passes, more money is added to the ‘pot’ and another set of hands is dealt. The process continues until someone comes up with, at least, the pair of jacks which, hopefully, will allow him to win the pot.

Britain’s King George I had subjects inclined to engage in riotous demonstrations. In 1716 he signed a proclamation that was to be read to annoying demonstrators anytime twelve or more of them were carrying on. If any of them continued to misbehave, they could be imprisoned for life. This was of course the riot act. Not surprisingly, it was effective. (Leaves me to wonder about the phrase carrying on.)

Martin VanBuren, in 1840, decided to run for a second term in the White House. He’d been born in Kinderhook, NY, and became known by supporters during the race as Old Kinderhook. A newspaper headline referred to supporters as the Democratic O.K. Club.

Ultimately VanBuren lost to William Henry Harrison, but O.K. survived and became part of the language.

Webb Garrison has more than six hundred additional accounts of the formation of everyday words and phrases. It’s an intriguing ride. Recommended for anyone interested in the language.

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