If I've said it once, I've said it a couple dozen times — words mean something. But how did we get around to using certain words in the first place?

I thought about an interesting word the other day and looked up its origin. The word is "eavesdrop." It means to secretly listen in to a conversation. So, where does it come from?

The most widely cited origin has to do with raindrops. Specifically the spot on the ground where rain rolls off the roof and drops onto the ground around the outside of a house or building. Theoretically, a person who wants to listen in on a conversation can stand on the ground on that spot where the rain rolls off the roof — a perfect location.

"Easy as pie" is a phrase that we often hear people use to describe something that is simple to do. The origin of this commonly used phrased is thought to have come from an expression in New Zealand that means "good." Perhaps it grew from an older expression "like eating pie" or "nice as pie." Come to think of it, most of us would find it very nice to eat pie — something easy to do and tasty.

What do you think when someone uses the phrase "as clear as a bell?" One logical explanation is "describing a tone free from harshness, rasping or hoarseness." It is used nowadays to describe something that is easily understood. "Clear as a bell" may also be tied to the phrase "loud and clear." I guess it just depends on which simile you choose to use.

When something is all spit and polished we may use the phrase "clean as a whistle." This may refer to the whistling sound a sword makes when it was flying through the air on the way to decapitate a person. It may refer to the clean sound a whistle makes. Or it could be have originally been "clean as a whittle" referring to the smooth wood after it is whittled. Since we don't do a lot of whittling, whistle blowing or decapitating, this one may go down as "undecided."

Our next phrase is nautical in origin. It's "hand over fist." I've heard it used a lot to describe how someone is making lots of money. But the Grammarist reminds us that there is an element of time in the origin of the phrase. The original phrase was "hand over hand" and it referred to doing something at a steady pace.

By the 19th century, it evolved into "hand over fist," referring to someone's "fist" holding onto the rope as the other hand flew forward to grab the rope in another position. By the 20th century, the meaning of the phrase changed from steady to a rapid pace and referred almost exclusively to making money. Who would have ever thought!

We often hear members of law enforcement use the term "dead to rights." So what does it mean? According to the Stack Exchange online, it means caught red-handed (another interesting phrase) committing a crime. "Dead to rights" means "certain; without doubt. "So, I guess when someone looks exactly like another person — we now know why he's called a "dead-ringer" for that person.

And finally, where did the word "cocktail" come from. Well, it seems as though there are several theories. One that kind of make sense to me has its origin in Colonial America, where tavern keepers stored their alcoholic drinks in casks. According to Chowhound's site, when the casks got nearly empty, the "dregs or tailings" would be mixed together in one barrel, sold at a cheaper price and poured from the spigot, which was called the cock. Patrons who wanted cheaper drinks would then ask for "cocktailings." Eventually, they dropped the '-ings' leaving us with the word cocktail.

Here's hoping you are now a little smarter when it comes to these words and phrases.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.