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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When I think of "weird expressions" I think of Negan and Eugene from The Walking Dead.

Of course, I can't think of any off the top of my head, but I'm sure there's a list online.

This site provides the sources of expressions coined in movies.

The ones in the (terrific) movie Heathers were intentionally coined by either the writer or the director. It was because using existing slang terms/phrases would date the film almost immediately. Some (such as the use of the word "much") have come into real-world use.

The expression of someone or something being "toast" comes from Ghostbusters.

If I heard correctly, I think Po used the “toast” expression in the latest Star Wars movie.

Richard Willis said:

This site provides the sources of expressions coined in movies.

The ones in the (terrific) movie Heathers were intentionally coined by either the writer or the director. It was because using existing slang terms/phrases would date the film almost immediately. Some (such as the use of the word "much") have come into real-world use.

The expression of someone or something being "toast" comes from Ghostbusters.

A few weeks ago, in class, discussing some set of theories, I mentioned that some researchers “Pooh-Pooh” them— in the sense of dismissing them.  My students— very bright graduate students— had no idea what I meant.

Dave Palmer said:

If I heard correctly, I think Po used the “toast” expression in the latest Star Wars movie.

So they originated the term, since this was "a long time ago...."

Heard “kangaroo court” used the other day, had to look it up. It’s from the Old West, where judges got paid per trial. So they “hopped” around to one trial after another, and just declaring defendant guilty was quickest way to move on.

Oh, that's great!



Dave Palmer said:

A few weeks ago, in class, discussing some set of theories, I mentioned that some researchers “Pooh-Pooh” them— in the sense of dismissing them.  My students— very bright graduate students— had no idea what I meant.


My doctor's nurse asked for a urine sample. I didn't have to go but I promised to give it "the ol' college try." She, likewise, had no idea what I was talking about.

All I can find on pooh-pooh suggests that it's basically self-explanatory. Pooh is to dismiss, and the second pooh is for emphasis or is rhyming-slang adjacent. It probably derives from the obvious bodily function, but the phrase is in use in upper classes, so it must be enough removed that the connection is lost, or at least not acknowledged. Or maybe the connection was never there, and it's only "obvious" to me because I'm an editor, and look for double entendres everywhere.

I've known about "ol' college try" since I was a kid, and someone explained it to me as a baseball play a college boy would try (and fail at) that pros would know better than to attempt (because it would fail). But it still impresses due to the strenuous effort -- or the opposite, in that it demonstrates showboating. It can be used either way. Also, obviously, it is now generic and not limited to baseball.

I have a question: A kangaroo court is one where the trial is rigged against the defendant, with "guilty" a certainty. Is there a name for a trial that is rigged FOR the defendant, with "not guilty" a certainty? Obviously, such a term might come in handy this year.

I wonder about "pooh-pooh." "Pooh" brings to mind a subvocal exclamation, basically a dismissive exhalation of breath. Stir into that the French word for "not" -- "pas," pronounced pah, and I can see non-scatological reasons the upper class might embrace pooh-pooh. 

That makes sense. Especially if "pooh" came from some language other than English, and is just an onomatopoeia.

Here’s a recent Pickles comic strip with a couple:  mosey & hightail it

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