busman’s holiday

A busman’s holiday is a day off from work spent doing the things one does on the job. It comes from the idea that a bus driver would spend his holiday traveling somewhere on a bus. The phrase dates originally referred to horse-drawn buses. From the English Illustrated Magazine of 1893:

I shall indeed take a holiday soon,...but it will be a “Busman’s Holiday.”

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

bunk

Bunk is short for bunkum, which in turn is an alteration of Buncombe, the name of a county in North Carolina. In the year 1820, the Missouri Question, whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave or a free state, was being hotly debated in Congress. Near the end of the debate and amidst calls from the floor to have a vote, Felix Walker, the representative from Buncombe rose to speak. Walker launched into an irrelevant and seemingly interminable speech. When asked to desist, he replied, “I am talking for Buncombe,” and continued on.1

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bumper crop

To the modern ear this phrase sounds odd. How did bumper become associated with agriculture?

The original bumper was a large cup, filled to the brim with wine, and used for toasting. Why it is called a bumper is a bit uncertain, but could be from the idea of knocking such glasses together during a toast. From Thomas D’Urfey’s Madam Fickle of 1676:

Full Bumpers crown our Blisses.

Bumper eventually came to refer to anything large or abundant. From Gentleman’s Magazine of 1759:

In some of the midland counties, anything large is called a bumper, as a large apple or pear.

By 1885 it was associated with crop, from the Times of London of 2 October:

The floods will have the effect of giving a “bumper” rubbee crop.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

bug

Most of us have encountered bugs in hardware or software, those defects that prevent computers from operating properly. But the term existed long before the age of computers. It has its origins in the shop of perhaps the greatest innovator of the industrial age.

The term was coined in the lab of Thomas Edison, perhaps by the man himself. Edison is the first to be recorded using the term in 1878. From Matthew Josephson’s 1959 Edison: a Biography which quotes the man himself:

“Bugs"—as such little faults and difficulties are called—show themselves and months of anxious watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success...is reached.1

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Buckley’s chance

Buckley’s chance is an Australian phrase meaning a slim chance or no chance at all. It is first cited in 1898 in the Sydney Bulletin of 17 December:

“Devil shoot me!” muttered Tim..."if I see Buckley’s chance of a shindy tonight.”1

The origin is unknown, but there are two common explanations.

The more likely of the two is that it is a bit of wordplay stemming from the name of the Melbourne department store of Buckley and Nunn, founded in 1851. The term is often phrased as there are two chances, Buckley’s and none.

A less likely, but more colorful, explanation is that it is a reference to William Buckley, a convict who escaped from Port Phillip prison in 1803 and lived with the Aborigines for 32 years before surrendering to authorities and obtaining a pardon. The problem with this explanation is the passage of time between his adventure and the appearance of the phrase and that fact that he did pretty well for himself in the bush. It’s not the story of a man with no chance.2

And it is possible for both of these to be true—with William Buckley giving rise to Buckley’s chance and it subsequently being punned into two chances Buckley’s and none, playing on the department store name.


1Oxford English Dictionary, Buckley’s, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 27 Dec 2008 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50028692>.

2Sydney J. Baker, The Australian Language, Sun Books, 1970 (Melbourne: MacMillan, 1966), 269.

broad

Where did this slang word for woman come from? It comes from a broad being a playing card. This may sound absurd on the face of it, but if you follow the development of slang uses of broad it all becomes clear.

Broad is an 18th century slang term for a playing card, especially one used in three card monte. This usage may refer to style of playing deck. In modern card decks, a bridge deck has narrower cards than are found in a poker deck. If this variation in card size is older (I know words, not cards), then a broad could be a reference to this larger cut of cards. From George Parker’s 1781 A View of Society:

Black-Legs, who live by the Broads and the Turf [...] Cant for cards.

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break a leg

Superstition against wishing an actor Good Luck! has led to the adoption of this phrase in its place. The date of origin is a bit obscure; as theatrical slang it existed long before it was ever documented in print, but the intent of the phrase is clear. It is simply a way of warding off a jinx. It being bad luck to speak of a positive performance, one instead speaks of a bad one.

Based on the recollections of actors, break a leg is commonly thought to date to the 1930s. Some claim a British origin, but the earliest citations are all American.1 The earliest actual appearance in print that anyone has found is from 1957, from the 29 May Associated Press wire service story about a dancer who literally broke her leg during a performance:

In the theater, they say “break a leg” to an actor just before he goes on stage, but it really means “good luck.”2

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boondocks

The word boondocks is a relic of American colonialism. British English imported lots of words from its far-flung colonial possessions, but American colonial aspirations mainly produced words derived from Spanish and adopted with the settling of the West. This one, however, is an exception.

It derives from the Tagalog word bundok, meaning mountain. It was adopted into the language by occupying American soldiers in the Philippines as a word meaning any remote and wild place. By 1909, only some ten years after the American conquest of the islands, the word had caught on enough to rate an entry in that year’s Webster’s New International Dictionary. Despite this, however, it remained primarily a military slang term, especially among Marines, until the 1960s, when, probably because of the Vietnam War, it gained wider, civilian usage.1


1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 239-40.

apron strings, tied to

To be tied to apron strings is to be controlled by or unduly attached to one’s wife or mother. The phrase dates to 1848, first appearing in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:

Even at his age, he ought not to be always tied to his mother’s apron string.

The metaphor is fairly obvious and the term apron string has been in use in reference to women since the mid-17th century. An apron string hold or apron string tenure referred to property of one’s wife, which was controlled by the husband during her life but which afterwards would revert to her original family.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

bogey

Bogey is a term that today is usually only heard in the air force or on the golf course.  Both these aviation usages date to World War II, but the term bogey is much, much older, coming from an old Scottish word for a ghost.

That word is bogle, often spelled bogy, bogil, bogie, and other ways. The term dates at c.1507, in William Dunbar’s The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (The Treatise of the Two Married Women and the Widow):

The luif blenkis of that bogill, fra his blerde ene
(As Belzebub had on me blent) abasit my spreit.
(The love blink of that bogle, from his bleared eyes
(As Beelzebub had me blinded) abased my spirit.)1

Bogle is the source for our modern bogeyman or boogieman.

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