Jack Robinson

The phrase before you can say Jack Robinson means very quickly, in no time at all. But who was Jack Robinson and how did his name become associated with speed? The answer is we don’t really know, but there are many different explanations.

We do know that the phrase dates to at least 1778 when it appears in Fanny Burney’s Evelina:

I’d do it as soon as say Jack Robinson.

Read the rest of the article...

jackleg / jackknife

Jackleg is a U.S. southern slang adjective meaning unskilled or unqualified. The term almost certainly comes from jackleg knife (jackknife) and was probably originally used as jackleg carpenter, a carpenter with only the most basic set of tools.

The term dates to at least 1837. From the 4 March issue of Spirit of the Times from that year:

He is no more to be compared to Osceola than a jack-leg lawyer to Cicero.

Use in the sense of a knife dates to at least 1672, in the Account Book of Sir J. Foulis:

For a Jock the Leg Knife 00l. 08s. 0d. Scots.

This is interesting because it predates the earliest known appearance of jackknife by some decades. Jackknife is an Americanism and is generally thought to be from one of the senses of jack referring to a mechanical contrivance of some sort. It dates to at least 1711 when it appears in the Official Records of Springfield Massachusetts:

One Dozen of Jack Knives, at six pence the knife.

So jackleg knife may be the original form, with origins in Scotland or the north of England where it developed into the form jockteleg. David Dalrymple’s (Lord Hailes) 1776 Glossary of Scottish words says:

The etymology of this word remained unknown till not many years ago an old knife was found having this inscription Jacques de Liege, the name of the cutler.

Phonologically, a transistion from Jacques de Liege to jockteleg and jackleg makes a lot of sense, but other than this source and a couple of 19th century references, no trace of this cutler or his handiwork has been found. This explanation remains an intriguing possibility, but has yet to be proven.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Historical Dictionary of American Slang; Dictionary of American Regional English)

Ivy League

This name for the group of prestigious eastern U.S. colleges dates to the 1930s. The name is a reference to the old, ivy-covered buildings on those campuses.

The term ivy colleges is first used in the New York Herald-Tribune of 14 October 1933:

A proportion of our eastern ivy colleges are meeting little fellows another Saturday before plunging into the strife and the turmoil.

The league was added by the Providence Journal on 8 February 1935:

Brown seen as charter member of Ivy League.

The Ivy League operated as an informal association that originally had ten members: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Yale, and the U.S. Military and Naval Academies at West Point and Annapolis. The two academies dropped out the association in 1940. The league was formalized in 1954 and played its first games as a formal organization in 1956.

(Source: ADS-L)

ivory tower

Why are academics chided as being in an ivory tower? What does an ivory tower have to do with seclusion or separation from the world?

The inspiration is the Bible. The Song of Solomon 7:4 (KJV) reads:

Thy neck is as a tower of ivory

In 1837, the French poet Charles-Augustin Saint-Beuve wrote a poem titled Pensés d’Août (Thoughts of August) that contained the line:

Et Vigny, plus secret,
Comme en sa tour d’ivoire, avant midi rentrait.
(And Vigny, more discreet,
As if in his ivory tower, retired before noon.

This figurative sense of ivory tower was first used in English in 1911 by Brereton and Rothwell in their translation of H.L. Bergson’s Laughter:

Each member must be ever attentive to his social surroundings...he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower.

And around 1916 Henry James penned a novel with that title, cementing the term in English vocabulary.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

in like Flynn

This phrase meaning you’re all set, everything will go like clockwork is simple rhyming slang. The belief that it is a reference to movie star Errol Flynn is false, but that idea certainly helped popularize the phrase.

The phrase first appears in July 1940, said by a fairground official telling a party that they would receive passes for a show:

Your name is Flynn...you’re in.

Another early usage is in the San Francisco Examiner, 8 February 1942:

Answer these questions correctly and your name is Flynn, meaning you’re in, provided you have two left feet and the written consent of your parents.

And this citation from the 9 February 1943 issue of the San Francisco Call-Bulletin:

SEEMS AS though my guess about the derivation of the phrase, “I’m Flynn” wasn’t altogether correct. I said it meant one was all set, ready, fixed, etc.—and that’s right. But two correspondents, O. B. and John O’Reilly agree that it began with some such phrase as “Well, I’m in like Flynn.” Finally, you were “in, Flynn.” Now it’s just “I’m Flynn.” The reverse of the phrase is not common, but it started with “I’m out like Stout,” which was shortened to “out, Stout” and is now “I’m Stout” (meaning things aren’t so good).

It is commonly thought that the phrase refers to Errol Flynn and his legendary success at luring women into bed. And it is often thought to specifically refer to Flynn’s acquittal of statuatory rape charges in February 1942. But as we have seen, the phrase was in use long before this trial. It seems much more likely that it is simply rhyming slang with Errol’s brush with law giving the phrase a popularlity boost and cementing it in its place in our lexicon.

(Source: ADS-L)

Indian summer

This term for a period of warm weather after the first frost of autumn dates to 1778. From a quote by St. John De Crevecoeur in that year:

It [sc. snow] is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian Summer.

No one is exactly sure why this period is called Indian summer, although there is no shortage of explanations, none with any real evidence to support them.

One of the earliest explanations was suggested in 1824 by Philip Doddridge in his Notes on the Indian Wars:

The smokey time commenced and lasted for a considerable number of days. This was the Indian summer, because it afforded the Indians another opportunity of visiting the settlements with their destructive warfare.

Another explanation is that Indian is used in a derogatory fashion in many compounds to denote something that is false or a poor imitation. This explanation is paralleled by the term St. Martin’s Summer, which is what the phenomenon is known as in Europe. It is called this because the warm spell often occurs around St. Martin’s day, 11 November. But in England, St. Martin is also associated with deception and falsehood because of the dealers in cheap jewelry who frequented the parish of St. Martin-de-Grand in London. This association may have reinforced that of Indian Summer being a false summer.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Mencken’s The American Language, Supplement One)

Indian giver

Indian giver is playground slang for a child who takes back a gift after he or she has bestowed it on someone. The term has its roots in the 18th century when white settlers in North America became confused over Native American systems of trade and barter.

Native Americans, without a system monetary currency, conducted trade via barter. To an Indian, the giving of gifts was an extension of this system of trade and a gift was expected to be reciprocated with something of equal value. Europeans, upon encountering this practice, misunderstood it, considering it uncouth and impolite. To them, trade was conducted with money and gifts were freely given with nothing expected in return. So this native practice got a bad reputation among the white colonists of North America and the term eventually became a playground insult.

The term Indian gift first appears in Thomas Hutchinson’s 1765 The History of the Colony of Massachusets Bay:

An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.

Indian giver appears nearly 75 years later in the New-York Mirror of 23 June 1838 in a discussion of school children:

Among them are distinct species of crimes and virtues. I have seen the finger pointed at the Indian giver. (One who gives a present and demands it back again.)

Some have politically correctly (but historically incorrectly) reinterpreted the term to actually refer to whites. The whites would give things to the Indians, only to take them back; these, according to this reanalysis, were the true Indian givers. While European dealings with Native Americans were often duplicitous, this is not the origin of this term.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Proquest Historical Newspapers)


The root hyster- comes from the Greek word for womb. So, the psychological disturbance termed hysteria was originally believed to be a disease of women and resulted from some disturbance in the uterus.

The adjective hysteric appears in the mid-17th century. From Richard Tomlinson’s 1657 translation of Renodæus’ Medicinal Dispensatory:

The Plague is a poyson...which retained in Histerick women.

Hysteria first appears in 1801 in the pages of The Medical and Physical Journal:

Account of Diseases in an Eastern District of London...Chronic Diseases...Hysteria.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


This word for the political campaign trail is originally Scandinavian in origin. In Scandinavian languages the word þing is used to refer to a meeting or deliberative body. Hence you have the Alþing, or Icelandic parliament. Old English adopted the word husting, literally house meeting. From the Old English Chronicle, sometime before 1030:

Hi genamon þa ðone biscop, læddon hine to hiora hustinge.
(They named then the bishop, leading the households to the husting.)

Before written ballots were adopted in Great Britain in 1872, candidates for parliament would meet with the electorate at a husting and the votes would be counted. From Thomas D’Urfey’s Wit and Mirth: Or Pills To Purge Melancholy from 1719:

What tricks on the Hustings Fanatics would play.

The word survives today in the sense of any place where a candidate meets with the electorate.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


Hunky-dory means fine or splendid. It is an Americanism from the mid-19th century. Its origin, in particular the -dory part, is not known for certain, although it may have been influenced by the name of a street in Japan.

The hunky portion comes from the Dutch honk, meaning goal, objective of a game. It entered the language via Dutch settlers in New York and was preserved in the speech of New York children. By the 1840s, it had become a slang term meaning safe, secure, in a good position. From Joseph Field’s Drama In Pokerville of 1843:

Well, I allow you’re just hunk, this time, then...for we have got the sweetest roaster for dinner you ever did see.

Read the rest of the article...
Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2018, by David Wilton