It's time to delve into the origins of some of our most curious words and phrases. We say them so easily — but often have no clue as to where they came from.
Take for instance the phrase "living the life of Reilly." I would have thought it had something to do with the television show "The Life of Riley," which aired first on radio in the 1940s. Nope. The original phrase comes from a comic song in the 1880s where a saloonkeeper did so well with that he moved on up to owning a prosperous hotel. The chorus of the song went like this:
"Is that Mr. Reilly, can anyone tell?
Is that Mr. Reilly who owns the hotel?
Well if that's Mr. Reilly they speak of so highly,
Upon my soul, Reilly, you're doing quite well."
Here's an expression that is near and dear to those who follow the comings and goings of the Alabama Legislature. It's "lobbying." So where did it come from? Most wordsmiths agree with this origin: Men and women who work to influence lawmakers on pending legislation used to have access to the floor of the House and Senate. But because of their often disruptive antics, they were banished to the lobbies of the chambers, where they were referred to as "lobbyists."
Speaking of the legislature, where did we come up with the word "filibuster," meaning legislative obstruction? When I was anchoring newscasts at WSFA, we often reported on members of the House and Senate stalling to prevent a bill from receiving its rightful attention and their demands met.
To get to the bottom of the word, we have to go back to the Spanish word "filibustero," which was given to a freelance pirate who was out to get what he could for himself. In some cases in the state legislature, things haven't changed a bit.
When my wife was in high school, there were the two organizations for young ladies that were patterned after college sororities. One of them was called the Cotillions. I often wondered where the word came from. Turns out cotillion means "petticoat." Back in the day, the cotillion attendees had big dances or balls where the young ladies would — on occasion — hold up their dresses and show off their petticoats. Oh my. How risqué.
If you're a fan of card games, you may have wondered about the origin of the word "trump" as a card or suit of cards that has special powers. My research showed the word "trump" is a corruption of the word "triumph." By the way, it has no connection with the 45th president of the U.S.
I remember learning to play chess when I was in junior high school. It became our game of choice for the kids in the neighborhood for most of one summer.
Which brings me to the question — where does the term "checkmate" come from? It is called by the winning player when the opposing king cannot move. Turns out we can thank Arabic-speaking chess players for the word, which literally means "the king is dead." That's not to be confused with the song "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" by The Fifth Estate in 1967.
We often hear of some maritime incident occurring on the "high seas."
So what exactly does that mean? Research shows all waters that are not the property of a particular country — that is outside the three-mile limit — is considered to be the high seas. The word "high" is used to indicate the waters are public, much as a highway is a public thoroughfare.
Have you ever wondered where the word "jeep" comes from? Some of the first quarter-ton vehicles delivered to the Army were referred to as General Purpose. That name was abbreviated to "G.P." when painted on the outside of the observational vehicles. When G.P. was spoken, it sounded like "jeep" ... hence the abbreviation became a household word and eventually became a commercially produced vehicle owned by the Fiat Chrysler Group.
When I was young, there was a popular TV show named "Maverick." It was a western that starred Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick and James Garner as Bret Maverick, two well-dressed gamblers who drifted from town to town looking for a good poker game. The term "maverick" actually means an unbranded cow.
The word comes from Samuel Maverick, a Texas rancher who, in the 1840s, was famous for not branding his cattle, which gave the local rustlers a field day.
When it came to the Maverick brothers on TV, another definition might apply. Each brother qualified as "an independent individual who does not got along with a group or party."
How about the term, "wet blanket" — where did it come from? I've read that it all has to do with putting out a fire. A wet blanket will smother a fire, and likewise a person who can't have a good time at a party will have the same effect.
And finally there's a term we've all heard: "bigwig." Have any idea where that word came from? Years ago in Great Britain, it was the custom for men of importance to wear wigs. British jurists and lawyers continue the tradition today. So a person of importance wore a "big wig" and was referred as one, too.
Until next time, all you big wigs out there.