Saying someone is “like a deer in the headlights” implies they are both vulnerable and unable to act. As noted on quora, “there’s a (generally illegal) form of deer hunting known as “deer jacking” that exploits this reflex of the deer. The jackers go out in the dark and shine a bright light at deer to get them to freeze, making them much easier targets.” It seems that deer really do this.
This is an American phrase and the British, according to phrases, have their own version: caught like a hare in the headlights. This seems odd because, while I’ve seen rabbits zig and zag in front of a car (what works to escape a coyote doesn’t work as well with a car) I’ve never seen one freeze as the car approached.
While I didn’t find the first citation, word-detective says:
‘to look like a deer in the headlights’ leaped into the public vernacular in a big way with the 1988 Presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush and his running mate, Senator James Danforth (“Dan”) Quayle. Quayle’s reaction to [an attack during a debate] was described the next day by several commentators as like a deer in the headlights, frozen in fear…
A deer-less relative of the phrase appeared in print more than a decade earlier:
‘It is only when they commit some offence that they are caught in the headlights of history,’ Daily Telegraph, 1971), although this usage seems to reflect the sense of ‘came to public attention’ rather than ‘caught clueless.’
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: https://www.facebook.com/cipotato/
To read between the lines is to discern a meaning that isn’t made obvious or explicit.
This expression derives from a simple form 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.
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.
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.
I always imagined this phrase conjured some violent altercation – not so!
The Explainer on Slate says
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.