This Should be an Expression :)

International Potato Center - yes, there is one!We’ve posted several times on GMOs (genetically modified organisms, usually in the context of food crops) and this meme captures part of the arguement for GMOs perfectly. Let’s make “being a firefighter in a very slow truck” a new expression. Write down this meme so we’ll remember where it came from. Choose one of our GMO posts from here.

Thanks to a facebook post:

Read Between the Lines

To read between the lines is to discern a meaning that isn’t made obvious or explicit.

This expression derives from a simple detective-mdform of cryptography, in which a hidden meaning was conveyed by secreting it between lines of text. It originated in the mid 19th century and soon became used to refer to the deciphering of any coded or unclear form of communication… The first example that I can find of the phrase in print is from The New York Times, August 1862. Phrase Finder

I was reminded of this phrase by a pundit on cable news, so it’s funny that the 1862 citation is also from politics.

The letter assumes a somewhat enigmatical character, and the only resource we have is, as best we may, to ‘read between the lines’ of this puzzling, but important, communication of the British Foreign Secretary.

Fool Me Once, Shame on You – Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me


President Bush liked this phrase, too. “There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee…”

This phrase doesn’t rely on metaphors – it states it’s wisdom outright. A thread on a Quora forum offers further references:

Oxford University Press (2008) is this quote from The Court and Character of King James by Anthony Weldon (1650), page 52:

The Italians having a Proverb, He that deceives me Once, it’s his Fault; but Twice it is my fault.

History for Colonial Williamsburg offers this American citation:

Axioms—read in the Bible, quoted from classical literature, and handed down through families—were a part of everyday life in 1700s America… In 1778, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported: “He who lives in a glass house, says the Spanish proverb, should never begin throwing stones.” A 1786 essay refers to an early, non-English form of the familiar saying “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Wrote George Horne, an English divine: “When a man deceives me once, says the Italian proverb, it is his fault; when twice, it is mine.”

Inspirationalstories lists a Chinese version: Once bitten by an adder, you will never walk through the high grass again.

I suppose people all over the world often discover the same wisdom.

Wrapped Around the Axel

To be wrapped around the axel is to be in a difficult situation from which it’s hard to extract oneself. It seems that anything with an axel, from a horse-drawn wagon to a wheelbarrow, has been considered a possible source.

Phrase Finder had some hypotheses but no citation. But here’s a citation I found in wikipedia:

As The New York Times noted in its obituary of the dancer on 15 September 1927, ‘The automobile was going at full speed when the scarf of strong silk began winding around the wheel and with terrific force dragged Miss Duncan, around whom it was securely wrapped, bodily over the side of the car, precipitating her with violence against the cobblestone street. She was dragged for several yards before the chauffeur halted, attracted by her cries in the street. Medical aid was summoned, but it was stated that she had been strangled and killed instantly.’

Ug! Certainly dramatic enough to stick in the public mind and perhaps become this phrase.

Balls to the Wall Has Nothing to Do With Anatomy

I always imagined this phrase conjured some violent altercation – not so!

The Explainer on Slate

The expression comes from the world of military aviation. In many planes, control sticks are topped with a ball-shaped grip. One such control is the throttle—to get maximum power you push it all the way forward, to the front of the cockpit, or firewall (so-called because it prevents an engine fire from reaching the rest of the plane). Another control is the joystick—pushing it forward sends a plane into a dive. So, literally pushing the balls to the (fire)wall would put a plane into a maximum-speed dive, and figuratively going balls to the wall is doing something all-out, with maximum effort.

Wordorigins says the earliest written citation is from 1967, appearing in Frank Harvey’s Air War—Vietnam: “You know what happened on that first Doomsday Mission (as the boys call a big balls-to-the-wall raid) against Hanoi oil,” though Slate says Korean War veterans claim they used the phrase earlier.

If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going…

… any road will take you there. This phrase is used to point out project’s goals have not been articulated.

It’s often attributed to Lewis Carroll, and while an exchange in Alice in Wonderland may have inspired it, what Carroll wrote was:

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘—so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

There is a recent, specific citation: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there” are lyrics from the song Any Road, written by George Harrison. Wikipedia says the lyrics were written in 1988.

But here’s the thing – I had a boss who used this phrase so often that I remember it, and I’m as sure as I can be that was before 1988. I even dug out an old resume to confirm I left that boss in 1986.

So I have a dilemma – Carroll may well be the inspiration, but -assuming my boss didn’t make it up on his own – if there was an earlier citation (and you’ve only got my faulty memory to go by) it’s been completely overshadowed by George Harrison.

At the Drop of a Hat

To act with little encouragement or provocation – so I guess red_fedora.svg.meddropping your hat is especially easy.

Phrase Finder says this originated in the American West, where the signal for a fight was often to drop one’s hat.

In the 19th century it was occasionally the practice in the United States to signal the start of a fight or a race by dropping a hat or sweeping it downward while holding it in the hand. The quick response to the signal found its way into the language for any action that begins quickly without much need for prompting. Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers (Wings Books, Originally New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).

The earliest written citation, from Worldwidewords,

is some way from the American frontier: They could agree in the twinkling of an eye — at the drop of a hat — at the crook of a finger — to usurp the sovereign power; they cannot agree, in four months, to relinquish it. Register of Debates in Congress, 12 Oct. 1837, [which] shows that even at this early date the expression was already idiomatic.

There’s little doubt about the matter, despite the regrettable failure of any early user to put its origin on record for us.