Friday, January 22, 2021

Idiom origins: Don’t put your eggs in one basket

| January 7, 2021 1:00 AM

Idioms are a fun way to make a long story short, albeit dubiously.

So if you’re buying the stories behind these common idioms (idiomata?), just keep the receipt. Take them with a grain of salt (because since at least the 17th century salt is recommended when wary of taste).

Tips: No, it’s not an acronym for “to insure prompt service.” As the oft-repeated story goes, London teahouses or pubs sometimes featured little boxes with this saying, where customers might pop in a coin.

But nothing backs up that story. In fact, for centuries, and grammatically even today, the proper word would be to ensure that service. Which ruins the acronym. More credible are accounts of the phrase “giving a tip” in the 1600s among shadier circles, with thieves rewarding accessories to the crime.

Bite the bullet: The jury will have to stay out on this one (another obvious idiom). The consistent claim describes Civil War soldiers without anesthesia enduring emergency surgery on the battlefield by biting down on a bullet to stifle screams. Sounds possible, except (a) (don’t) try that without the bullet slipping, and (b) in most drawings and accounts of the time, they got a more sensible leather strap or piece of wood, not a bullet.

That didn’t stop literature; ever since in poems, novels and newspapers, the phrase “bite the bullet” continues to be used to indicate fortitude in tough situations.

Break the ice: Centuries ago when ships were relied on for international transportation and trade, winter ice sheets could block them. It’s said the receiving country would send small ships to “break the ice” to clear the way, facilitating the two countries’ affiliations and friendship. Whatever the motivation, it’s true that special ice-breaking ships were used to ease navigation.

By 1883, Mark Twain used the phrase “ice-breaker” in "Life on the Mississippi:" “They closed up the inundation with a few words — having used it, evidently, as a mere ice-breaker and acquaintanceship-breeder…”

Butter someone up: It’s said that in ancient India, the devout would spread clarified butter, or ghee, at the statues of gods to seek favor and forgiveness. While that practice was confirmed by historians, it’s unclear whether it is the origin of the phrase meaning to curry favor (pun intended).

Cat got your tongue? This one’s sad. Meaning to be at a loss for words, the Old English navy supposedly used a “cat-o-nine-tails” whip to punish sailors. The resulting pain led to long silences. Another story of ancient Egypt describes liars and blasphemers’ tongues cut out and fed to cats. The trouble is, there’s not much evidence for either story. Before store-bought cat food, on the other hand, cats did have a reputation for eating most any meat, including tongues.

Thank goodness for Fancy Feast.

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who keeps her felines well-plied with non-human sustenance. Contact her at