Sixteen Candles on Conversational Speech


Earlier this week, The Pecan Park Eagle received the following sixteen candles of enlightenment on the derivation of as many figures of speech and expression. They came to us from good  friend and fellow SABR member, Father Gerald Beirne of Narraganset, Rhode Island. None are referenced to any primary source authority, so, you readers will have to either do what I did, accept the good intentions of Father Beirne and the logical flow of each explanation as “gospel truth,” or else, go do the primary source substantiation research yourself. 

Thanks again, Father Beirne, for your ongoing contributions to our always hopeful of improving state of cultural erudition. 🙂

Today is also one of those “mild-stone” (as opposed to serious milestone) days in the history of The Pecan Park Eagle. Today’s column is the 1,800th in our series since we came over to WordPress from Houston Chron.Com in 2009. Thanks to all of you who continue to support what we try to do here by your ongoing readership. We aren’t out to set the world on fire. – We just want to start – an occasional flame in your heart. – Those facts now duly noted, let’s move on to Father Beirne’s Sunday contributions.

1) A SHOT OF WHISKEY. In the old west a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents, so did a shot 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.

2) THE WHOLE NINE YARDS. American fighter planes in WW2 had machine guns that were fed by a belt of cartridges. The average plane held belts that were 27 feet (that is, 9 yards) long.  If the pilot used up all his ammo, he was said to have given it the whole nine yards.

3) BUYING THE FARM. This expression is synonymous with dying. During WW1, soldiers were given life insurance policies worth $5,000. This was about the price of an average farm, so if a soldier died, he “bought the farm” for his survivors.

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

5) PASSING THE BUCK/THE BUCK STOPS HERE. Most men in the early west carried a jack knife made by the Buck Knife Company. When playing poker, it was common to place one of these Buck Knives in front of the dealer so that everyone knew who he was. When it was time for a new dealer, the deck of cards and the knife were given to the new dealer. If this person didn’t want to deal, he would “pass the buck” to the next player. If that player accepted, then “the buck stopped here.”

6) RIFF RAFF. The Mississippi River was the main way of traveling from north to south. Riverboats carried passengers and freight, but the cost was expensive, so most people used rafts. All other boats had the right of way over rafts, which were considered cheap. The steering oar on the rafts was called a “riff,” and this transposed into riff-raff, meaning low class.

7) COBWEB. The Old English word for “spider” was “cob.”

8) SHIP STATEROOMS. Traveling by steamboat was considered the height of comfort. Passenger cabins on the boats were not numbered.  Instead, they were named after
states. To this day, cabins on ships are called staterooms.

9) SLEEP TIGHT. Early beds were made with a wooden frame. Ropes were tied across the frame in a criss-cross 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 have to tighten the ropes to get a better night’s sleep.

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

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

12) 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, so people would say that they “barged in.”

13) HOGWASH. Steamboats carried both people and animals.  Since pigs smelled so badly, they would be washed before being put on board. The mud and other filth that was washed off was considered useless “hog wash.”

14) 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. The term was later adopted into Middle English as “curfeu,” which later became the modern word “curfew.” In the early American colonies, homes had no real fireplaces, so a fire was built in the center of the room. To ensure that 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.”

15) BARRELS OF OIL. When the first oil wells were drilled, oil drillers had made no provision for storing the liquid, so they used water barrels. That is why, to this day, we speak of barrels of oil rather than gallons.

16) HOT OFF THE PRESS.  As the newspaper goes through the rotary printing press, friction causes it to heat up. Therefore, if you grabbed the paper right off the press, it was hot. The expression means to get immediate information.



One Response to “Sixteen Candles on Conversational Speech”

  1. Wayne Roberts Says:

    Very interesting…I knew the origin of one (barrels of oil). The whole nine yards has had me wondering for years.

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