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 saysX-29_aircraft.svg.med

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. aliceiseverywhere.com 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.

The Fat is in the Fire

This phrase was easy to track down on the internet. It means “a course of action with inevitable bad consequences has begun. The allusion to fat dropping into a fire and causing a burst of flames was already a proverb in John Heywood’s 1546 collection.” (dictionary.com)

Times of India adds that “in its earliest use (14th century), the expression had to do with failure; only later did it come to imply, as it now does, a crisis or an explosion of anger, recrimination or trouble.”

The phrase originated when fat was valued – I suppose a modern dieter might want fat to burned off!

Is There a Bee in Your Bonnet?

I heard this phrase on a recent cable news show and it struck me as rather old-fashioned for TV

Idioms says

The phrase has been around since the 1500’s… The Old_woman_in_sunbonnet_by_Doris_Ulmannliterary origin is seen in Alexander Douglas’s worked titled ‘Aeneis’ which was published in the year 1513 but it was not exact. In 1790, Reverend Philip Doddridge’s ‘Letters’ cited the phrase as it is used currently.

The post adds that the phrase once seemed specific to women and for men the variation was “bee in your head.” Apparently, as with “author” and “actor” modern English is losing some of its gender distinctions. That’s probably a good thing when it’s not awkward. I’m a volunteer firefighter (not fire woman or fire person!) and a foreman can be a crew leader. Hurray for a living language.

Cut and Dried

This phrase, which means something is clear and beyond dispute or settled in advance, struck me as another hay farming phrase. After mowing/cutting hay, it is left to dry (moisture content is important, so this step takes skill) before it’s ready to bale.

Wiktionary has my guess in mind, saying the phrase comes from herbs being cut and dried for sale, rather than fresh. I suppose that implies the herbs are stable and not going to change – at least, that’s my guess on how the literal and figurative meanings connect.

The first citation of the expression, which must have already been in use or it wouldn’t make sense to use it this way,

is in a letter to a clergyman in 1710 in which the writer commented that a sermon was “ready cut and dried”, meaning it had been prepared in advance, so lacking freshness and spontaneity. worldwidewords

Many people mishear the standard expression as ‘cut and dry.’ Although this form is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, it is definitely less common in sophisticated writing. The dominant modern usage is “cut and dried.” public.wsu.edu