brass monkey, cold enough to freeze the balls off a

This phrase is often said to have a nautical origin involving cannon balls, but cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey is instead both literal and anatomical in origin. And although now the phrase is used almost exclusively in the canonical version given here, in early usage the parts of the monkey’s anatomy varied, as did the temperature, with the phrase being used to refer to hot weather as well.

The OED2’s entry on monkey includes the following citation from Frederick Chamier’s 1835 Unfortunate Man. (When the entry for monkey was updated for the 3rd edition, the editors decided that this phrase should instead be under the headword brass. But they have not yet updated the entry for brass, so the entry and all the citations for this phrase have vanished from the current online version; temporarily, one hopes. If consulting the online version, one must search in the 2nd edition to find the phrase and citations.) While not in the form we’re familiar with today, it establishes monkeys as metaphorical instruments of weather measurement:

He was told to be silent, in a tone of voice which set me shaking like a monkey in frosty weather.1

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coin a phrase

Sometimes interesting words and phrases are right under our noses. After using it countless times on this site, a reader asked me where the term to coin a phrase came from?

The verb to coin originally meant to literally mint a coin. It dates to the 14th century, first appearing in Robert Brunne’s Langtoft’s Chronicle, written about 1330:

The kynge’s side salle be the hede & his name writen; the croyce side what cite it was in coyned & smyten.
(The king’s side shall be the head & [have] his name written [on it]; the cross side [shall have] what city it was coined & smitten in.)

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Perhaps H.L. Mencken said it best:

The cocktail to multitudes of foreigners, seems to be the greatest of all the contributions of the American way of life to the salvation of humanity, but there remains a good deal of uncertainty about the etymology of its name and even some doubt that the thing itself is of American origin.

Nowadays, we’re somewhat more certain that the word is American in origin than Mencken was, but there is still considerable question about its exact etymology. The explanation best supported by the evidence is that the noun meaning a mixed, spirituous drink is taken from an earlier adjectival use meaning something stimulating or that would “cock one’s tail.”

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This term for food is a clipping of the older chow-chow, a Chinese-English pidgin word of unknown origin meaning food or, in particular, a mixture or medley of foodstuffs.

Chow-chow first appears in 1795, in Aeneas Anderson’s A Narrative of British Embassy to China:

Chow-chow...victuals or meat.

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cloud nine

The phrase on cloud nine describes a state of euphoria or elation and the reference is of unknown significance. It is an Americanism and is first recorded in 1957 in George P. Elliot’s Among the Dangs:

I waited awhile, but he was off on cloud nine.

Although the phrase with the number nine dates to 1957, there are variants using other numbers dating back to the 1930s. Albin Jay Pollock’s 1935 The Underworld Speaks: An Insight to Vice—Crime—Corruption has:

Cloud eight, befuddled on account of drinking too much liquor.

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church key

Church key, an American slang term for a bottle opener, is first attested to in 1951, although it is undoubtedly older.

It’s so called because the bottle openers resemble the heavy, ornate keys that unlock big, old doors like those found in churches. The origin may also be related to the irony of associating churches with drinking.1

1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 422.


The English name for the Asian country is not originally a native Chinese one. It first appears in Sanskrit writings about two thousand years ago. It was brought to Europe by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. The first English usage appears in 1555 in Richard Eden’s The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India:

The great China whose kyng is thought...the greatest prince in the world.

The ultimate origin is not quite certain. Most commonly it is thought to come from the Ch’in (or Qin in the Pinyin transliteration system) dynasty of the 3rd century B.C. Alternatively, it could come from Jinan, an ancient city in Shandong province.

The porcelain product is so named because that technique of earthenware manufacture originated in China. It was brought to Europe in the 16th century by the Portuguese. Its appearance in English dates to at least 1634, when it was used by Thomas Herbert in his A Relation of Some Yeares Travaile:

They sell Callicoes, Cheney Sattin, Cheney ware.

China-ware was clipped to China within a few decades. From Henry Cogan’s The Voyages and Adventures of F.M. Pinto (1653):

A Present of certain very rich Pieces of China.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Place Names of the World, by Adrian Room)

charley horse

This term for a cramp or pulled muscle in the leg is originally a baseball term, or at least it first gained widespread use in baseball jargon. The reference is a mystery. No one knows who Charley was or why he may have had a lame horse.

The earliest known use of the term is from the Boston Globe, 17 July 1886:

Several years ago, says the Chicago Tribune, Joe Quest, now of the Athletics, gave the name of “Charlie horse” to a peculiar contraction and hardening of the muscles and tendons of the thigh, to which base ball players are especially liable from the sudden starting and stopping in chasing balls, as well as the frequent slides in base running. Pfetlor, Anson and Kelly are so badly troubled with “Charley horse” there are times they can scarcely walk. Gore had it so bad he had to lay off a few days, and is not entirely free from it now. Williamson, too, has had a touch of it.1

(A search of the ProQuest archives of the Chicago Tribune fails to turn up the story about Joe Quest referenced in the above quotation.)

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Department of Foot In Mouth

Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary, got off to an inauspicious start at his first press briefing on Tuesday by using the term tarbaby when asked about the government collecting phone records on millions of Americans:

I don’t want to hug the tarbaby of trying to comment on the program, the alleged program, the existence of which I can neither confirm nor deny.

The term has a history of use as a derogatory term for African-Americans. Snow was using the term in its sense meaning an intractable problem that brings discredit to those who attempt to solve it and undoubtedly did not intend any offense, but he did display significant insensitivity in using it.

The term comes from 1881 Joel Chandler Harris story of Uncle Remus, where Brer Fox smears a doll with tar in hopes of using it to ensnare Brer Rabbit:

Brer ‘im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun what he call a Tar-Baby.

From this original use, the term was extended to its metaphorical sense of a difficult problem. But by the 1940s, the term was being used as a racial epithet. From Sinclair Lewis’s Kingsblood Royal of 1948:

"I didn’t know she was a tar-baby.""Don’t be so dumb. Can’t you see it by her jaw?"

Sometimes people take offense at words and phrases like nitpicking, picnic, or call a spade a spade, falsely believing there to be a history of racist usage in them. In such cases, people should not be afraid to use the term in question–if someone takes offense, one can simply point out their error. But in this case, the term does have a long history of racist usage. Snow would have been better served choosing a more neutral metaphor like playing in traffic or touch the third rail.

Department of Motherhood & Apple Pie: Official, no wait, National, no wait, Common and Unifying

Is English the national language or is it a common and unifying language? In a fit of linguistic demagoguery the U.S. Senate would have it both ways. Within the span of a few minutes the Senate declared English to be the national language and then the common and unifying language. Not a single senator voted against both wordings. (Three were not present for the vote.)

On Wednesday, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) submitted an amendment to the immigration reform bill pending action in the Senate that would make English the "national language" of the United States. The United States has never declared an "official" or "national" language, although several of the individual states have. The amendment passed the Senate on Thursday in a 63-34 vote.

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