ST. GEORGE — Learning the words dog, cat, see spot run all seems so simple, but as language has evolved over time there are many unknowns to understanding their genesis.
Even mothers trying to teach their child what the saying “Happy as a Clam” means – are often flummoxed over what they mean, where they come from and how they’ve stood the test of time, with many origins dating back hundreds or thousands of years.
In their purest sense, a word or a phrase seems straightforward but can often be an intermingled maze of connecting myths with facts and cultural relevance that keeps them alive.
Benjamin Slade, associate professor in linguistics with the University of Utah, acknowledges that while words can often be traced to their roots, the origin of phrases is sometimes more difficult to pin down.
“Although the origin of words and phrases share similarities, phrases are a little bit different because they are more complex or culturally specific,” Slade said. “But, the line between words and phrases is kind of difficult to draw.”
It is an uphill battle when talking about phrases because they often are difficult to put into context without the knowledge of a culture that could have long disappeared or changed into its modern-day cousin.
A great example of how the distinction between words and phrases can be blurred is the saying to “kowtow,” Slade said.
“Well, is this a word or a phrase, because there is a cultural specificity to it,” he added. “But, it’s a good illustration of … where do you draw the line between the two.”
The “interesting” thing is sometimes a phrase will survive, but the context will disappear, Slade added.
“The phrase I like to point to is ‘to kick the bucket,’ meaning ‘to die,’ but it’s not clear where this came from or its (original) context,” he said.
To kick the bucket could be a metaphor that when you kick the bucket or die, life spills out, Slade said. “But, this is just a guess.”
One problem with understanding the origins of a phrase is how it can change over time, Slade said.
“Sometimes people will say the first half of something, because if it’s a common phrase people will know the rest of it, so you don’t have to say the entire phrase,” he added. “But, if people only say half of it for long enough, it can get reinterpreted.”
A minuscule collection of fun words and phrases
“Happy as a clam” could be one example of how a phrase changes as parts of it drop off from use in daily life.
Gary Martin, founder of The Phrase Finder asks, why would clams be happy?
It has been suggested that open clams give the appearance of smiling, Martin said. The origin is more likely to come from an expanded version of the phrase, now rarely heard: “happy as a clam at high water.”
Hide tide is when clams are free from the attentions of predators including human shore diggers who descend on the succulent bivalves whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Martin said the phrase originated in the northeastern states in the early 19th century. The earliest citation so far found is from a frontier memoir, The Harpe’s Head – A Legend of Kentucky, (1833), “It never occurred to him to be discontented … He was as happy as a clam.”
The first verifiable record of the “high water” version is from the U.S. newspaper The Bangor Daily Whig And Courier, published in 1841. “Your correspondent has given an interesting, and, an (undoubtedly) correct explanation of the expression ‘As happy as a clam at high water.’”
However, several biographies of Gen. Robert E. Lee state that he used the expression ‘as happy as a clam at high water’ on more than one occasion. One such occasion states that he included it in a letter that he wrote in 1833, which would pre-date the above by a few years.
Martin could not find a record of the letter, so the account is second-hand, but Martin insists, it is believable that Lee would have used the expression.
The expression was well-enough known in America by the late 1840s to be included in John Russell Bartlett’s “Dictionary Of Americanisms – A Glossary of Words And Phrases Usually Regarded As Peculiar To The United States,” published in 1848. During this time, “as happy as a clam at high water,” became a common expression along the coast of New England and farther south where clams are a yummy food source slurped up by many adoring fans.
Kowtow began its life as a noun, meaning the act of kneeling and touching one’s head to the ground as a greeting, a show of submission or worship to a revered authority.
Martin said in traditional China – to kowtow – was performed by commoners making requests to local magistrates, by the emperor at the shrine of Confucius, or by foreign representatives appearing before the head of state in order to establish trade relations.
In the late 18th century, some Western nations resisted performing the ritual, which acknowledged the Chinese emperor as the “son of heaven.” The word kowtow comes from Chinese ‘koutou,’ which is formed by combining the verb ‘kou’ – to knock – with the noun ‘tou’ – head.
The practice first came known to the English-speaking world in the late 18th century, when Westerners began to visit China.
The British explorer Sir John Barrow observed kowtowing first hand.
In 1792 he was appointed as an aide to Viscount George Macartney, the British ambassador in Peking. Barrow subsequently wrote, “Travels in China,” (1804), in which he was the first to explain kowtowing to the west.
Barrow wrote, “The Chinese were determined they should be kept in the constant practice of the koo-too, or ceremony of genuflexion and prostration.”
Macartney was given 15,000 pounds sterling a year – or about 2.3 million in British currency today – as ambassador to head a trade mission and establish economic relations between Britain and China. In 1793, he was presented to Emperor Qianlong, or “son of heaven” as he preferred to be called, but the viscount reportedly refused to perform the obligatory show of submission.
When Macartney failed to show proper respect, Qianlong left the meeting, the trade mission was abandoned and Macartney was fired.
In retrospect, Macartney may have thought twice about his actions.
He might have felt that he retained his dignity but had he known – if the trade negotiations were successful – he would have been rewarded with potentially a 7.5 million pound sterling job annually or nearly 1.2 billion pounds today.
Although Macartney’s diplomatic mission to China was unsuccessful some historians believe it did not succeed because of the ambassador’s refusal to kowtow.
The failure to secure trade between Britain and China is believed to have failed – also not a result of the Chinese reliance on tradition in dictating foreign policy – but rather a result of competing world views that were incompatible.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
The proverb “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” means that it’s better to hold onto something you have rather than take the risk of getting something better, which may come to nothing.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush is one of the oldest and best-known proverbs in English.
Martin said, it came into the language in the 15th century and is probably imported from other cultures.
The proverb warns against taking unnecessary risks. It is better to keep what you have – a bird – than to risk getting more, playing on the greed of man, and ending with nothing or two birds that are out of reach.
The phrase may be a reference to falconry where a bird in the hand – the falcon – was a valuable asset and certainly worth more than two in the bush, the prey, Martin said.
This saying is believed to be first found in the English language in John Capgrave’s “The Life of St Katharine of Alexandria,” (1450).
“It is more (certain) a (bird) in your fest, than to (have) three in the sky (above).”
John Heywood’s 1546 glossary “A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue” also includes a variant of the proverb. Saying it’s “better one (bird) in hand than ten in the wood.”
Martin said that Capgrave probably didn’t coin the expression himself – many other languages have variants of the saying – but how long the phrase predates his publication isn’t clear.
The 7th century Aramaic “Story of Ahikar” has text that modern translations render as “Better is a sparrow held tight in the hand than a thousand birds flying about in the air.”
English immigrants to America took the expression with them and “bird in hand” and started showing up in the New World by 1734 when a small town in Pennsylvania was founded with the name.
Legend credits the Village of Bird-in-Hand’s name to two men surveying the Colonial highway between the port of Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
At dusk in 1734, they found themselves at a tavern – a crude log hut – located by a Conestoga wagon stop.
Looking at the meager building one of the surveyors is believed to have said, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” so the pair agreed to stay for the night with few other options for a more palatable place to rest.
The log hut – built by William McNabb – would become known as “The Bird-in-Hand,” and the village had its name. The Bird-in-Hand Village Inn & Suites now stands on the site of the original tavern.
Different strokes for different folks
This expression began in the United States in the 1960s. The first person to have used it is believed to be Muhammad Ali.
While preparing for his fight with Cleveland Williams in 1966, Ali said, “I don’t have (a devastating) punch. I just hit a man so many times he wished I had a punch,” adding his knock-out punches against Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson, “I got different strokes for different folks.”
In using “different strokes for different folks” it may be that Ali was repeating existing street slang but if so, Martin said, there’s no surviving record of the expression in print prior to his use of the phrase.
Given Ali’s celebrated and inventive use of language, it is likely that he coined the expression himself. The phase is now commonly used as different ways of doing things for different people.
Knock on wood
This phrase is used by people who rap their knuckles on a piece of wood hoping to prevent bad luck after using an expression that hypothetically opens the door for something unwanted to happen.
In the UK, the phrase ‘touch wood’ is used – often jokingly by tapping one’s head. The phrases are often used when a person is already experiencing some good fortune and hopes that it will continue.
The origin may be an association to ancient pagan cultures such as the Celts, who believed that spirits and gods resided in trees. Knocking on tree trunks may have served to stir the spirits and call on their protection. The act to tap on trees lets the wood spirits within know you are within their realm, Martin said.
The saying could have also been a way of showing gratitude for a stroke of good luck or a way to chase away evil spirits, preventing them from eavesdropping when someone boasted about their luck.
Malevolent spirits were believed to have the power to bring about a reversal of fortune. Another theory links Christians and Christ’s crucifixion on the wooden cross. But there seems to be little agreement about the origin of “knock on wood.”
Other researchers consider knocking on wood a more recent phenomenon.
In his book “The Lore of the Playground,” British folklorist Steve Roud traces the practice to a 19th-century children’s game called ‘Tiggy Touchwood,’ a type of tag where players were immune from being caught whenever they touched a piece of wood or tree.
The British version of the phrase “touch wood” pre-dates the American ‘knock on wood’ and was itself preceded by a Latin version “absit omen” meaning “far be that omen from us.” This dates from at least the early 17th century when it is quoted by John Heywood in his “A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue.”
The practice of touching wood is not a western construct. The Turks would often pull on one earlobe and knock on wood twice to ward off a jinx.
It isn’t clear when “touch wood” began to be used as a token of good fortune, but it must have been by 1850 when the academic correspondence magazine “Notes and Queries” published “I touch wood, bar omen, bar ill-luck, seem clumsy.”
“Knock on wood” is known in America from the early 20th century when it is found in “The Syracuse Herald,” (1905). “Neglecting to knock on wood may have been responsible for the weather’s unseemly behavior today.”
Popular lore attributes the origin of this term for the lavatory to Thomas Crapper (1836-1904), the supposed inventor of the flushing toilet. Martin said Crapper was not the inventor. The first device recognizable as a flushing lavatory was invented by the English Tudor courtier Sir John Harington.
Although he didn’t event the flushing toilet, Crapper did hold nine patents for plumbing-related inventions, including three for water closets, but the flush lavatory – called the Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer – was patented in 1819 by Albert Giblin. Queen Elizabeth I was reported to have a version of a flushing lavatory, made according to Harington’s design, 200 years earlier.
Nevertheless, Crapper is the name that people remember.
Martin said Crapper was well-known in his day as a sanitary engineer. He had a thriving plumbing business and was a sanitary engineer for several members of the royal family.
Although some may dismiss the use of “Crapper” as an urban myth, the dismissal may not be entirely correct with many people rushing to judgment and painting Crapper out of the picture of history.
The word “crap,” either as a noun or as a verb, doesn’t appear in English before Crapper’s lifetime. The earliest citation that refers to ‘crap’ as a reference to excrement is from an 1846 edition of “Swell’s Night Guide.”
“Where’s the plant, cully? Fenced, in a dunniken … What? Fenced in a crapping ken.”
Swell’s “Night Guide” was a magazine that circulated among the unseemly elements of London society.
There are older Dutch and German words “krappe / krape” and the English version “crappe” could have been the source of Crapper’s name, but Martin said none of these actually mean to defecate or excrement.
Thomas Crapper didn’t begin work as a sanitary engineer until 1861, several years after “crapping” was clearly known as a slang term for defecating, so his name couldn’t have been the source of the term, Martin added.
However, the coincidence of the name of the foremost Victorian sanitary engineer and the existing expression must have given rise to “crap” as excrement being more widely accepted. This is a phrase that has lasted into the 21st century.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.
David Louis is a native of...well, everywhere. It’s hard to nail down a hometown for David, because when he was growing up, his father wanted to move somewhere else every two or three years. Since 1986, his primary residence has been Las Vegas, where he graduated from the University of Nevada. David has been a journalist collectively for more than 10 years, but as a jack-of-all-trades, he has also been a restaurant manager, warehouse foreman for a piping company, K-8 teacher and limousine driver. Along with a past life as a musician, David enjoys traveling on Amtrak – it’s all about the journey and not about the destination – cooking and painting. His greatest joys in life are his family, too numerous to list, and his cat Maxine.