Quirky phrases that have faded into obscurity

Mar 02, 2024
Source: Getty Images.

Isn’t it funny how certain phrases go in and out of fashion? When I look back over the years, there are so many sayings that are no longer being used. Here are a few that I remember.

HOT OFF THE PRESS — As the paper goes through the rotary printing press friction causes it to heat up Therefore, if you grab the paper right off the press, it’s hot. The expression means to get immediate information.

IRON CLAD CONTRACT– This came about from the ironclad ships of the Civil War. It meant something so strong it could not be broken.

BUYING THE FARM– This is synonymous with dying. During World War I, soldiers were given life insurance policies worth $5000. This was about the price of an average farm, so if you died you “bought the farm” for your survivors.

A SHOT OF WHISKEY– In the old West a .45 cartridge for a six gun cost 12 cents and so did a glass of whiskey. If a cowhand was low on cash, he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a “shot” of whiskey.

RIFF RAFF– The Mississippi River was the main way of traveling from North to South. Riverboats carried passengers and freight, but they were expensive so most people used rafts. Everything had the right of way over rafts, which were considered cheap. The steering oar on the raft was called a “riff” and this transposed into riff-raff, meaning low class.

COBWEB – The old English word for “spider” was “cob”.

SHIP STATE ROOMS– Traveling by steamship was considered the height of comfort. Passenger cabins on the boats were not numbered. Instead, they were named after states. To this day cabins and ships are called staterooms.

SLEEP TIGHT– Early beds were made with a wooden frame. Ropes were tied across the frame in a crisscross pattern. A straw mattress was then put on top of the ropes. Over time, the ropes stretched causing the bed to sag. The owner would then tighten the ropes to get a better night’s sleep.

SHOWBOAT – These were floating theaters built on a barge that was pushed by a steamboat. These played small towns along the Mississippi River. Unlike the boats shown in the movie Showboat, these did not have engines. They were gaudy and attention grabbing which is why we say someone who is being the life of the party is “showboating”.

OVER A BARREL– In the days before CPR, a drowning victim would be placed facedown over a barrel and the barrel would be rolled back and forth to empty the lungs of water. It was rarely effective. If you are over a barrel, you are in deep trouble.

BARGE IN– Heavy freight was moved along the Mississippi in large barges pushed by steamboats. These were hard to control and would sometimes swing into piers or other boats. People would say they “barged in”.

HOGWASH – Steamboats carried both people and animals. Since pick smelled so bad they would be washed before being put on board. The mud and other filth that was washed off were considered useless hence the term “hogwash.”

CURFEW – The word “curfew” comes from the French phrase “couvre-feu”, which means “cover the fire”. It was used to describe the time of blowing out all lamps and candles. It was later adopted into Middle English as “CURFEU” which later became the modern “curfew”. In the early American colonies, homes had no real fireplaces so a fire was built in the centre of the room. To make sure a fire did not get out of control during the night, it was required that, by an agreed-upon time, all fires would be covered with a clay pot called a “curfew”.

BARRELS OF OIL –When the first oil wells were drilled, there was no profession for storing the liquid so they used water barrels. That is why, to this day, we speak of barrels of oil rather than gallons.

Are there certain phrases that you once used that are no longer in circulation?

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