Once in a Blue Moon

From a musical in 1906

From a musical in 1906

If something happens once in a blue moon, it’s rare. Even rarer, in the expression, than an actual “blue moon,” which refers to a month with two full moons, the second one being “blue.”

Thought to be called “blue” after an old english term meaning “betrayer,” a Blue Moon is an extra full moon that occurs due to a quirk of the calendar…

… about once every 2.7 years, because the number of days in a lunation (new moon to new moon) is a bit less than the usual calendar month — 29.53 days as opposed to 31 or 30 days (except for February, which has 28 days, so a blue moon cannot occur). space.com

“Blue Moon” is widely used this way in the media, but only in the last 30 years. Phil Hiscock wrote the fascinating tale for skyandtelescope:

The term “blue Moon” has been around a long time, well over 400 years [as in]
“He would argue the Moon was blue” was taken by the average person of the 16th century as we take “He’d argue that black is white.”

So where did our current usage come from? In May 1988, when a second full Moon occurred, radio stations and newspapers everywhere carried an item on this bit of “old folklore,” as they called it…

In 1986, in the Trivial Pursuit Genus II edition, “blue moon” is a question, and their source was a children’s book, The Kids’ World Almanac of Records and Facts (New York, 1985: World Almanac Publications). Then, in the December 1990 edition of Astronomy, Deborah Byrd mentioned the term came from a March 1946 article in Sky & Telescope (page 3)

So while the phrase may not be old folklore, it’s folklore today.

Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

Prancing_horse_outline.svg.medWith the holidays upon us, suspicious gifts may arrive at your door. You might inspect a horse’s teeth to estimate its age and value. To do this to a horse that is a gift is ungrateful – although, I know something about what it costs to keep a horse, so a sad old plug is a gift you might refuse!

Knowyourphrase says:

John Heywood, who is thought to have lived from the years 1497-1580 C.E., is said to have wrote the saying in a book of his called A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue, 1546:
Where gifts be given freely—east, west, north or south— No man ought to look a given horse in the mouth.

Phrase Finder says “As with most proverbs the origin is ancient and unknown,” but also notes that Heywood collected exprssions in common use at the time, and didn’t claim to have coined them.

Heywood obtained the phrase from a Latin text of St. Jerome, The Letter to the Ephesians, circa AD 400, which contains the text ‘Noli equi dentes inspicere donati’ (Never inspect the teeth of a given horse). Where St Jerome got it from we aren’t ever likely to know.

On The Fence

To sit on the fence is to be undecided between two options. Wikipedia adds an implied motivation:

… inability to decide due to lack of courage. This is farm-fence-mddone either to remain on good terms with both sides, or due to apathy regarding the situation and not wanting to choose a position with which one doesn’t actually agree. As a result, someone who “sits on the fence” will maintain a neutral and non-committal view regarding any of the other parties involved.

I didn’t find many sites suggestingan origin.

Superbeefy listed an amusing story that combines the phrase with an American hero and a wise slave:

During the Revolutionary War, a prominent New Jersey jurist, Judge Imlay, hadn’t yet committed to either the revolutionaries or the loyalists. So when Washington encountered one of Imlay’s slaves he asked him which way the judge was leaning.
Washington was so amused by the response that he retold it enough times for it to become part of our language. He said, “Until my master knows which is the strongest group, he’s staying on the fence.”

The site offers no citation, but I like the story.

Over a Barrel

barrel.svg.medTo be over a barrel is to be helpless, at another’s mercy.

The Phrase Finder identifies this as an American expression from the mid-20th century, and refers to a cartoon from the Pennsylvania newspaper The Clearfield Progress in 1938.

Worldwidewords found an earlier citation: “Woodland Daily Democrat of California, dated January 1896: “To use a vulgar expression, a Republican congress gleefully assembled in Washington for the express purpose of getting President Cleveland ‘over a barrel.’ The humiliating predicament…” As often the case, it seems the writer expected his readers to recognise this easily.

The OED suggests that the allusion is to placing a person rescued from drowning over a barrel to clear their lungs of water. This might sound rather unlikely, but there are many references in the literature to show this was once a common practice…

 

There are instances recorded from this period and earlier of a person being placed on or rolled over a barrel as a humiliating punishment. One case was that of a student hazing at a college in Ohio, reported in the Frederick Daily News in Maryland in 1886: ‘Once inside he was at the mercy of his captors, and the treatment he received was cruel. Bound hand and foot, he was rolled over a barrel.’ This is by far the more likely origin, since a person held over a barrel is helpless, whether face down or face up. It fits the meaning of the phrase much better than the resuscitation one does.

We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Come to It

Wooden_Bridge.svg.medTo cross a bridge when you come to it means to deal with a problem when it is imminent. A related phrase advises, don’t cross the bridge till you come to it, changing the meaning to say don’t worry about a problem that may not arise, or don’t allow a future problem to divert your attention from current needs.

Theidioms puts the origin of the phrase in the 1800s, when there was often literal concern over the safety of bridges.

The reliable Phrase Finder had a post asking about the phrase, but no information on the origin.

Wikipedia lists it as an English proverb, so I suspect it is recorded in old books, but none is listed.

So I tried searching on “Guttenberg ‘cross the bridge till you come,'” and found The Golden Legend, a poem from 1851 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Included in a conversation with Lucifer:

That, my good woman, I have not said. Don’t cross the bridge till you come to it. Is a proverb old, and of excellent wit.

So apparently the saying was well known by 1851.

Match Made in Heaven

This phrase refers to some collaboration that occurs easily and benefits all parties.

Theidioms says the origin is unknown. The christunitedfellowship suggests Genesis 2:18-25 is the inspiration, which begins

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man little-angel-mdto be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” New International Version

Wikipedia also suggests a biblical origin, though not a citation for the specific phrase.

Jews have held an ideal standard for Jewish family life that is manifested in the term shalom bayit. Shalom bayit signifies completeness, wholeness, and fulfillment… In Jewish culture, a marriage is described as a “match made in heaven,” and is treated as a holy enterprise.

But I’m pretty sure the first use wasn’t the 1977 movie A Match Made in Heaven