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Phrases beat a dead horse

January 20, 2011
By Andy Heller

FLINT - The other day, I was feeling a bit under the weather, so when the lovely yet formidable Marcia asked if I would go to the store for her and buy some milk I zipped my lip and said to myself, "Mum's the word."

After a moment she looked up and said, "Cat got your tongue?"

"No, I just don't want to go. It's raining cats and dogs out there. Plus, milk costs an arm and a leg these days and I'm not made of money, you know."

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Andy Heller

"Wow, someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning," she said. "Why the chip on your shoulder?"

"Stop beating a dead horse," I growled. "If the shoe were on the other foot, you wouldn't want to go either. Or am I barking up the wrong tree?"

She shot me a look, grabbed her keys and headed for the door, pausing to waggle a finger in my direction. "You better not be looking this gift horse in the mouth, mister." And off she stormed.

"Uh, oh," I said to myself. "Now my goose is cooked."

Ah well, at least I'll have my love of phrases, sayings and idioms to keep me warm tonight while she's busy giving me the cold shoulder.

Clever reader that you are, you probably noticed that I used quite a few PSIs (phrases, sayings and idioms) in the preceding tale of woe, including "giving me the cold shoulder," a phrase that supposedly refers to the cold, tough cut of meat that English hosts would feed guests who overstayed their welcome.

Did you know that? I didn't think so. Most of us use PSIs on a daily basis, and while we understand what they mean, few of us know where they come from, which is why I decided to put together a little quiz using some of the PSIs used above. Let's see how you do.

What's the origin of "having a chip on your shoulder"?

a) 19th Century Americans who wanted to fight would literally walk around with a chip of wood on one of their shoulders. To accept the challenge, someone would knock the chip off.

b) In England, chips are what they call French fries. To have a chip on your shoulder originally meant to have a strong craving for French fries.

c) It's an old cowboy term. On cattle drives, someone who fell off his horse was said to have a chip on his shoulder - of the cow variety - and that would make him mad. Fighting mad.

What's the origin of "costs an arm and a leg"?

a) Portrait painters used to charge by the limb. Heads were part of the basic package, but if you wanted your portrait to include your arms and legs, it would cost you dearly.

b) It's an old battle term referring to what an invader could expect to lose if he came too close, which is why the black knight in "Monty Python & the Holy Grail" says it's going to cost an arm and leg to cross his bridge.

c) The phrase began as a bit of black humor by Civil War surgeons, who amputated first and asked questions later. Their services, they joked, were so expensive, the poor sods on their tables literally had to pay with their limbs.

What's the origin of "barking up the wrong tree"?

a) It's a hunting term. Hunting dogs chase things up trees. Sometimes they literally bark up the wrong tree. Stupid dogs.

b) C'mon, dogs aren't that stupid. It's a hunting reference all right, but it refers to dogs attempting to tree a bear that doesn't want to be treed, which can often end badly for the dogs.

c) It's a lumbering term. "Bark up" means to debark a felled tree, which is a bad thing to do prior to hauling since the bark protects the meat of the wood.

What's the origin of "beating a dead horse"?

a) It's an English expression. A member of Parliament first used the phrase to colorfully describe what trying to revive an unpopular bill would be like.

b) It's a cowboy insult. Cowboys who ran their horses too long and too hard were derisively said to be beating a soon-to-be dead horse.

c) It's a horse racing term, and not a kind one. A particularly slow horse is one that can't even beat the slowest of all horses - a dead one.

What's the origin of "raining cats and dogs"?

a) In the days of thatched roofs, dogs and cats would often sleep up there. And when it would rain really hard, they would slide off or through the roof, causing it to literally rain cats and dogs.

b) In ancient warfare, attacking armies would load dead animals of all kinds - from cattle to dogs and cats - into catapults and lob them over the walls of cities they were trying to capture, thus spreading disease. Gross but effective.

c) Think "Wizard of Oz." During tornados on the American plains, dogs, cats and pretty much everything else go airborne. And what goes up must come down.

So how'd you do? The answer to all five questions was C. Surprised? You should be. The actual answer to each was A. I like to tease. The answers were adapted from material on answer.com, usingenglish.com and knowyourphrase.com. One caveat: After reading up on this stuff it's pretty clear that no one truly knows the origins of many PSIs.

In other words, take what you read here with a grain of salt.

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EDITOR'S NOTE - Andy Heller, an award-winning columnist for The Flint Journal, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. For more of his work, visit his blog at blog.mlive.com/flintjournal/aheller. You can e-mail him at aheller@flintjournal.com.

 
 

 

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