Out of the Blue

bolt from the blueWhen you’re hit out of the blue, something (usually bad) happens without warning. I assumed this phrase refers to aerial bombing during a war. But Phrase Finder say it comes from an older “bolt from the blue” referring to lightning.

The earliest citation is Thomas Carlyle, in The French Revolution, 1837: “Arrestment, sudden really as a bolt out of the Blue, has hit strange victims.”

Another variation is “out of the clear blue sky.”

No Problem, Forsooth

The tide of language sweeps ever along, and it Hamlet.svg.medcarries you with it whether you like it or not. Do not struggle foolishly against it. slate.com

English is a living language, which means words are always coming, going, and changing. Dictionaries don’t try to freeze language – they try to keep up with it. Grammar is more important to written words than it is to spoken. Because it lacks the subtle clues of tone and gesture, written language is less communicative.

This can be hard on those of us who struggled to learn the rules, and suffered under the presumptions of teachers decades behind us in modern usage. Teachers who thought I, for example, should love Shakespeare – even if I needed annotations in the text to follow the near-foreign language.

Once upon a time, “thank you” was invariably followed by “you’re welcome.” This arbitrary expression of politeness is falling from usage – it’s become common to reply “thank you” right back.

Now, apparently, the double thank-you is sliding into the past.

“Thank you” brings “no problem” as a rejoinder. Or maybe, “no worries” if you’re fond of Australian English (and who can resist?)

Does this grate on your nerves? Perhaps you never got used to the mirror thank-yous and still long to hear “you’re welcome.”

Get over it.

“Are you telling me that I, a human being with certain inalienable prerogatives, have no right to dislike this particular phrase? Must I remain silent forever? Have I no recourse to complain?”

That is exactly what we are saying… You will be nobler for it.

And stop grinding your teeth over “organic bananas,” complaining that no fruit is based on silicon chemistry.

You know who you are.

Now You’re Cooking with Gas

blue-gas-mdWaywordradio attributes the origin to a commercial use that sounds plausible to me:

In the 1930’s, the catch phrase Now you’re cooking with gas, meaning “you’re on the right track,” was heard on popular radio shows at the behest of the natural gas industry, as part of a quiet marketing push for gas-powered stoves.

Stackexchange is more specific. They say:

The phrase has been attributed to Deke Houlgate [by his son], who after working in the gas industry, wrote the line for Bob Hope or maybe for Jerry Calonna.

It was used on a radio program “around” December 1939 and then promoted by gas companies. I can understand putting the phrase in the more-famous mouth of Bob Hope, and he apparently did say it in the 1941 movie The Road to Zanzibar.

Other citations include Lou Holtz and Fanny Brice on Good News of 1940, the 1942 movie The Big Street, and Daffy Duck in 1943’s The Wise Quacking Duck.

The phrase seems to have become popular quickly – a tribute to radio, movies, and the demise of wood-burning stoves. I recall a great-aunt of mine who finally allowed her old wood-burning stove to be hauled away when it was replaced by a combination wood and electric appliance. Only propane would have been available to her but I don’t know if she ever tried that. Perhaps if she’d been cooking with gas she’d have given up the wood-burning oven altogether. She would have made great bread no matter what.

You Don’t Want to Get Thrown Under the Bus

Word Detective offers this thorough definition:

‘To throw someone under the bus’ is defined as Stay out from under the busmeaning to sacrifice; to treat as a scapegoat; to betray, but I think the key to the phrase really lies in the element of utter betrayal, the sudden, brutal sacrifice of a stalwart and loyal teammate for a temporary and often minor advantage.

Not all our popular phrases come from the King James Bible or Shakespeare – there is, apparently, no antecedent phrase about throwing someone under the wagon. This phrase belongs to us, so you’d think its origin would be clear. You’d be wrong.

Merriam Webster says:

The origins of throw someone under the bus have been attributed to minor league baseball, Cyndi Lauper, the slang of used car salesmen, and various other improbable sources…

The 1984 quote from rock star Cyndi Lauper where she uses the phrase “under the bus” (without “throw”) may or may not count as a sighting, according to Word Detective.

But Merriam Webster attributes the earliest written usage to Elinor Goodman, Financial Times (London, Eng.), 10 Dec. 1980:

Some still pin their hopes on the “under the bus” theory which has Mr. Foot being forced by ill health—or just the pressures of the job—to give way to Mr. Healey before the next election.

This, however, lacks the malevolent flavor of current usage. A better citation comes from Julian Critchley, The Times (London, Eng.), 21 June 1982, but a completely satisfying citation has eluded me.

So I must conclude that, while a recent phrase generates a lot of possibilities, it isn’t any easier to pin down than a venerably aged phrase.

Lipstick on a Pig

Children's book a project of gramps and the grandkids :)

Our own RF_alum’s children’s book about pigs – smart pigs, no lipstick

The futility of decorating a pig leads to more than one phrase. For example, trying to dress a pig in a gown only ruins the gown and annoys the pig. Or “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” which dates back at least to the mid-16th century. But today I looked at putting lipstick on a pig – the futile attempt to make superficial changes that don’t fool anyone.

Slate’s Explainer says A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796) included a “hog in armor” phrase similar to our modern meaning, but the lipstick variation is recent:

In 1985, the Washington Post quoted a San Francisco radio host on plans for renovating Candlestick Park (instead of building a new downtown stadium for the Giants): “That would be like putting lipstick on a pig.”

Ginger’s phrase of the day agrees.

Bury the Hatchet

Where bury-the-hatchet comes from

Meeting of Hiawatha and Deganawidah by Sanford Plummer

I grew up in New York State and local history was the theme for 7th Grade Social Studies. This included the Iroquois Nations, as I was recently reminded by today’s phrase – to bury the hatchet is to cease and forgive previous hostilities. The phrase gives me a chance to return to a favorite site, The Straight Dope.

According to tradition–no doubt based largely on fact–the Iroquois leaders Deganawidah and Hiawatha convinced the Five Nations (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) to stop fighting amongst themselves and form a confederacy. This probably happened before Columbus sailed, but how much before is a matter of dispute. To celebrate the new peace, the Iroquois buried their weapons under the roots of a white pine. An underground river then miraculously washed the weapons away so the tribes could never use them against each other again.

French records from 1644 mentioned the tradition, but the first English citation of a literal hatchet-burying came from 1680 and Samuel Sewall (later of Salem Witch Trials fame.)

Major Pynchon’s goeing to Albany, where meeting with the Sachem the[y] came to an agreemt and buried two Axes in the Ground; one for English another for themselves…

In 1705 Beverly wrote of “very ceremonious ways to concluding of Peace, such as burying a Tomahawk.” Tomahawk variations remained popular for over a century, but eventually “hatchet” buried “tomahawk.”

The exact phrase comes from September 18, 1753.

Lord Commissioners of Trade and the Plantations in London wrote a letter to the Governor of Maryland that reads, “His Majesty having been pleased to order a Sum of Money to be Issued for Presents to the Six Nations of Indians [the Iroquois] and to direct his Governour of New York to hold an Interview with them for Delivering those presents [and] for Burying the Hatchet …”

I love Cecil Adams and his Science Advisory Board – such a nicely assembled article.