elephant, to see the

I have seen the elephant is a expression denoting world-weary experience. It is an Americanism dating to the early 19th century. The elephant is metaphorical, standing it for the exotic and strange things one sees when one has experience and has seen the world.

Many associate the phrase with the Civil War. While it was certainly in use during the war and undoubtedly crops up in letters and diaries from that period, the phrase is older. From Augustus B. Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes, in a passage written in 1835:

That’s sufficient, as Tom Haynes said when he saw the elephant.1

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The term eighty-six is restaurant/bar slang for an item that is out of stock or a customer that is to be denied service. The origin is obscure, but it seems likely that the number has no significance; it is simply part of a larger numbering scheme used by waiters and soda-jerks.

George Manker Watters and Arthur Hopkins’s 1927 play Burlesque contains this exchange, which appears to be a use of eighty-six in the sense of denying a customer service, although this is not certain:

Waiter...If you need any Scotch or gin, sir—...My number is Eighty Six...Skid...Yeah. Eighty Six. I know. (Waiter exits R. Skid draws enormous flask from pocket.)1

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dollars to doughnuts

This phrase is clearly an allusion to odds in a bet—such a sure thing that the speaker is willing to wager real money against pastries—back when doughnuts were worth far less than a dollar. The terms were undoubtedly chosen for alliterative and metaphorical purposes. No one is seriously suggesting that people used to gamble with pastries. The phrase dates to at least 1876 when it appears in the 11 March Daily Nevada State Journal:

Several Benoites took a vantage of the half fare tickets offered to those who were to attend the ball given by the railroad boys at Carson last night, and attended it. It’s dollars to doughnuts all enjoyed themselves.

The form dollars to buttons is also encountered in early texts, bolstering the idea that it is the value of the doughnuts, not anything else, that is key to the metaphor. From George W. Peck’s Peck’s Boss Book of 1884:

It is dollars to buttons that...she will be blown through the roof.

(Sources: ADS-L; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

egg on

This term meaning to encourage or incite has nothing to do with throwing eggs. The verb egg dates to 1200 and is from the Old Norse eggja. From the Trinity College Homilies, c.1200:

Alse the deuel him to eggede.
(And the devil egged him.)

The phrase to egg on is 16th century. From Thomas Drant’s 1567 Horace His Arte of Poetrie, Pistles and Satyrs Englished:

Db, Ile egge them on to speake some thyng, whiche spoken may repent them.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

eeny, meany, miney, moe

These are simply nonsense words used in various children’s counting-out rhymes. The words have no intrinsic significance and variants are found in several different languages. There is no canonical version of the rhyme and a great number of variations on the rhyme are found.

The oldest known versions date to 1855 and are found in the publication Notes & Queries:

The Schoolboy Formula...Eeny, meeny, moany, mite...Eeny, meeny, tipty, te.

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Most people know that to eavesdrop is to listen in on a conversation to which one is not a party. But where does this word come from? What does it have to do with eaves and roofing?

Eavesdrop, or originally eavesdrip, is a very old word. It is originally a noun referring to the water dripping off the eaves of a building or ground on which such water would fall. From medieval times there were legal restrictions on building close to one’s property line so that the eavesdrop would not damage the neighbor’s land. From the Kentish Charter of year 868 (yfæs drypæ = eavesdrip):

An folcæs folcryht to lefænne rumæs butan twigen fyt to yfæs drypæ.
(A right of the people to live without restraint except it is uncertain in the eaves drip.)

The word eavesdropper, meaning one who stands in the eavesdrop of a building and listens to conversations within, dates to 1487. From the Nottingham Borough Records of that year, mostly in Latin except for the word in question:

Juratores...dicunt...quod Henricus Rowley...est communis evys-dropper et vagator in noctibus.
(The court…was told…under oath that Henry Rowley…is a common eavesdropper and a prowler in the night.)

Or for a fully English quote, we go to c.1515 and Richard Pynson’s Modus Tenendi Curiam Baronis:

Avb, Euesdroppers vnder mennes walles or wyndowes...to bere tales.

The verb to eavesdrop makes is not recorded until 1606. It’s not certain whether it’s a backformation of eavesdropper, or if that noun comes from the verb which existed, unrecorded, in earlier years. From the 1606 comedic play Sir Gyles Goosecappe:

We will be bold to evesdroppe.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition.)


Easter, or Eastre as it is originally, was the name of a pagan goddess of the dawn whose festival was held on the vernal equinox. The Christians adopted her name and many of the celebratory practices (as they did with Saturnalia and Christmas) for their celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The pagan holiday roughly corresponded with the time of year of the crucifixion and resurrection (Passover).

From the translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History commonly attributed to King Alfred, c.890, a statement by Nechtan mac Der-Ilei, king of the Picts, on accepting the Roman Catholic doctrine of when to celebrate Easter, an event that happened c.710:

Ic ðas tide Eastrena ecelice healdan wille.
(I will observe this date of Easter forever.)

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


This term for a lesbian is a clipped form of bulldyker, an American slang term that dates to at least 1906. The origin is unknown, but the fact that bulldyker is the earliest known form by several decades limits the possibilities significantly.

From J. Richardson Parke’s Human Sexuality (1906):

In American homosexual argot, female inverts, or lesbian lovers, are known euphemistically as “bulldykers,” whatever that may mean: at least that is their sobriquet in the “Red Light” district of Philadelphia.1

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Dutch treat

This is one of several derisive terms referring to the Dutch. Dutch treat is an Americanism referring to the supposed Dutch trait of being miserly. It dates to at least 1887. From the August issue of Lippencott’s Magazine of that year:

“You’ll come along too, won’t you?” Lancelot demanded of Ormizon. “Dutch treat vous savez.”1

The adverbial form go Dutch dates to 1914, first recorded in Sinclair Lewis’s Our Mr. Wrenn of that year.2

1Oxford English Dictionary, Dutch, a., n. (adv.), 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 6 Jan 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50071137>.

2Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 683.


This word meaning a stupid person is an eponym for John Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308), a leading scholar of philosophy and theology. Scotus was born in Duns, Scotland and his writings formed the philosophical core for a Scholastic sect named after him, the Scotists. In the 16th century, humanists and reformers began attacking the Scotists for splitting hairs and engaging in useless philosophical discussions. In retaliation, the Scotists railed against the new learning of the Renaissance. As a result, Duns’s followers became associated with those who refused to learn. As William Tindale put it in 1530 in An Answere Unto Sir Thomas Mores Dialoge:

Remember ye not how [...] the old barkyng curres, Dunces disciples and lyke draffe called Scotistes, the children of darknesse, raged in euery pulpit agaynst Greke Latin and Hebrue.

The sense meaning an idiot dates to at least 1579. From John Lyly’s Euphues, The Anatomy of Wyt from that year:

If one be hard in conceiuing, they pronounce him a dowlt: if giuen to studie, they proclaime him a dunce.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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