I noticed one day that I use a lot of metaphorical expressions picked up over the years (mostly as a child from family) whose origin I haven't any idea about. I know what I mean, others know what I mean, but I don't know what they mean in a literal sense. But I learned them so young, and they're so ingrained in my vocabulary, that only occasional do I have the self-awareness to catch myself using one. When I do, I start to wonder what on earth I'm talking about.

For example: "A fly in the ointment." I use it to mean "a minor problem that could have big effects," but I don't know how it got coined. Others usually understand what I mean (probably because most of them grew up in the same geographical area and heard the same expressions). But nobody ever says, "What ointment?" Did people use a lot of ointment in the past, and were flies a problem? Were flies NOT a problem, so when one appeared it was worth remarking on? 

"Spanner in the works" is related, but I can guess what that means, given that a spanner is an English wrench, and a common American expression is to sabotage something by throwing a monkey wrench into the machine.  Both are only barely metaphorical, as their meaning is clear, and I haven't bothered to look them up.

I've always meant to make a list of these expressions, but now that there's Google, if I think of one I just look it up. (Which is how I know what "the whole nine yards" means. It's a reference to an ammo belt on the guns in U.S. bombers in World War II, and if you used the whole nine yards, it meant you were fighting the whole way there and back. For years I assumed it had to do with football.) 

For the record, I looked up "fly in the ointment" as I was posting this. It's likely from the King James Bible, saith Wiki, from a phrase where a fly got into the ointment from an apothecary, causing it to spoil. Small problem, big effects, as I thought. But I should have guessed "Bible" from "ointment," since that's about the only place I run across that word. Anyway, now I know. 

A third example is "another precinct heard from." I know it means yet another voice piping up in a conversation/argument/debate, but I never knew whether the precinct referred to elections or police headquarters. Turns out, the original phrase is "another county heard from," and "country" is sometimes heard as well, But it comes from the 1800s and does refer to elections.

But whether I know the meaning or not, I continue to use these archaic expressions. So I'm curious if y'all have any examples of these, whether you've looked up the meanings or not.

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I think a lot of these expressions are holdovers from times when their meaning would have been more obvious.

Today, it occurred to me that I still talk about "hanging up the phone",  even though with all the phones I use now,  I end the conversation by pressing a button.

Yeah, and "hanging up" on someone is the same. I recently heard the phrase "he hung up on me" when someone abruptly terminated a phone conversation in a movie or TV show. Apparently still in common use!

I use the term "vetting" without really knowing where it came from: I just know what it means. My wife notices sayings of mine she does not recognize all the time (I grew up in Michigan, she grew up in Connecticut with very literal-minded parents). I'll return to this thread when I think of some.

I was inspired to look up the etymology of "run of the mill." I wish I could say it was entertaining, but really it was pretty ... well, you know.
I assume you guys all know about the podcast/NPR radio show, A Way With Words, right? They develop deep on all kinds of expressions like that every week.

Here's some: "close, but no cigar." "A miss is as good as a mile. "On you like white on rice."

A couple of ones from my neck of the woods are, "don't be so spleeny" and "gag me with a spoon".



Border Mutt said:

A couple of ones from my neck of the woods are, "don't be so spleeny" and "gag me with a spoon".

...Fer sure, fer shure!!!!!!!!!!! Gnarly.

Fifty years from now, someone will realize that they said "he hung up on me," and not have any idea where that expression came from.

I remember "Gag me with a spoon" became so overused in the '80s that people began saying "Gag me with a chainsaw"... until that, too, became overused.

...Will at least the NY metroplex-ers here remember this on

  " Does Macy's tell Gimbels'? " This mall in Capitola, CA where I am somewhat neglecting my Korean barbecue food court chicken chunks and veggie egg rolls has a Macy's. I'll check how many years Gimbel's has flatlined...

I knew "close but no cigar" off the top of my head. It's from when carnivals gave out cigars as prices at the game booths. I don't know how I came to know this, but I suspect from watching reruns from the 1950s, like Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. I started going to carnivals in the late '60s or 1970s, and by then nobody was handing out cigars as prizes any more. Anyway, if you failed to win a prize, the carny would say ... oh, you guessed it.

"A miss is as good as a mile" I had to look up, and it's apparently very old. Sir Walter Scott is credited with coining it.

Both "like white on rice" and "gag me with a spoon" I'd guess, without doing any research, that they are of fairly recent vintage. None of the adults in my parents' generation used them, and when we kids used them, they were vaguely puzzled and disapproving. I heard "gag me with a spoon" first on TV and movies about kids my age, and then kids my age started using it. Like "white on rice" was also something heard on TV, but not picked up much in my neck of the woods, probably because it can be misinterpreted as racist. In fact, I don't use the expression myself for that very reason.

I did look up "neck of the woods" and there are several theories as to its origin. It always seemed self-explanatory to me, that a "neck" would be a part of something thinner than the rest of that something.

Gag me with a spoon"  came from the "Valley Girl" phenomenon.

"Like white  on rice" apparently goes back to 1951, from what I could find on line.

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