freelance

Freelancing is a form of self-employment, where one hires out one’s services instead of being employed on a permanent basis. Many believe this term dates to the Middle Ages, referring to a knight who served as a mercenary, as opposed to pledging fealty to a single lord. While this is indeed the metaphor underlying the term, freelance only dates to the early 19th century and is applied anachronistically to medieval times. From Sir Walter Scott’s 1820 Ivanhoe:

I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances.

Figurative use, referring to something other than knights, dates to 1864. From The Standard of 16 April of that year:

They may be Free Lances in Parliament so long as the guerilla career suits them.

The verb and gerund are from the early 20th century. From Enoch Arnold Bennett’s 1903 The Truth About The Author:

What in Fleet Street is called “free-lancing.”

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

flying saucer

The modern phenomenon of UFO sightings dates to 1947. While occasional reportings of unusual objects in the sky date to the early 20th century, both the modern UFO craze and the term flying saucer date to this year.

On 24 June 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing several high-speed, unidentified flying objects near Mount Rainier in Washington state. This produced a spate of such “sightings” in the following days. Initial reports described these objects as “shaped like a pie plate” and within a few days this description morphed into flying saucer. From the Los Angeles Times, 28 June 1947:

The area over which the “flying saucers” were reported seen widened to Southwestern New Mexico today.

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flying colors

To come off with flying colors is to achieve great success. It is a military metaphor for leaving the battlefield still in possession of one’s flag. The phrase dates to the 17th century. From John Locke’s 1692 A Letter Concerning Toleration:

It may...bring a Man off with flying Colours.

And from George Farquhar’s 1706-07 A Beaux Stratagem:

We came off with flying colours.

Some claim a nautical origin for this phrase, but it appears to have got its start among armies, not navies.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

five by five

Often in old war movies you’ll hear a radio operator say, “I read you five-by-five.” What does this mean?

The operator in question is ranking the voice transmission on a scale of one to five in two categories, strength and clarity. So, five-by-five is loud and clear and one-by-one would be weak and unintelligible. From Evan Hunter’s 1954 Blackboard Jungle:

“All right, testing, one-two-three-four."..."Five by five, Mr. Halloran!”

By the 1980s, it had acquired a general slang sense of okay, fine. From Rick Eilert’s 1983 For Self and Country:

“I hope everything’s all right.”
“Yeah, everything is five by five.”1


1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 757.

fire

To fire is an American slang verb meaning to dismiss someone from employment, to sack someone. The underlying metaphor is not quite certain, but it is most likely that of a bullet being fired from a gun.

The word first appears in the early 1870s in a general sense meaning to dismiss, to get rid of someone. From the March 1871 issue of Overland Monthly:

The thought that I was fired by some stranger, who wasn’t a-takin’ no hand...is not a good thought to die on.

The dismissal from employment sense appears a decade or so later. From Sweet and Knox’s Texas Siftings of 1882:

If Gould fires you out, the only railroad in Texas that will employ you will be some street railroad.1

There are various claims floating about that the slang term comes from literal acts of arson. An employer would burn the desk or home of someone he wished to dismiss. This is utter nonsense. The slang term is metaphorical and was never meant to be taken literally.


1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 749.

filibuster

During a filibuster, a senator or group of senators continue to talk, often about irrelevant topics (reading the telephone book is a phrase often used), in order to prevent a vote on a particular subject. The rules of the US Senate allow for unlimited debate. So as long as the vocal cords of the senators hold out, they can prevent legislation from moving forward. The term is technically not restricted to the US Senate, but given the peculiar rules of this body it is most often used in reference to that body.

A filibuster is so-called because the minority hijacks the debate, much like a pirate hijacks a ship and it is an affront to good order and discipline, just like the Yankee filibusters who invaded Latin America in the 1850s.

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fifth column

This term for a group of insurgents, traitors, or spies is a calque from Spanish. It dates to 1936 and the Spanish Civil War. That year, Nationalist general Emilio Mola had surrounded Madrid with four military columns and declared that he had a quinta columna within the besieged city. The quotation was widely reported in British and American newspapers and the term quickly caught on and generalized. From the New York Times of 17 October 1936, in reference to the fighting for Madrid:

Prudence counsels the government to forestall as far as possible the activities of this “fifth column.”

And in a more general sense, from the 21 October 1939 edition of War Illustrated:

This looks to me like the Nazis’ “fifth column” in Belgium ready for the invasion.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings, the

The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings. Many have wondered where this phrase comes from. Well, they have to keep on wondering because the origin is obscure.

The earliest recorded version of the phrase is somewhat different than the one familiar to most people. It appears in a 1976 pamphlet titled Southern Words and Sayings, by Fabia and Charles Smith:

Church ain’t out ‘till the fat lady sings — It ain’t over yet.

Ralph Keyes, in his book Nice Guys Finish Seventh, cites numerous people who claim to have been familiar with the phrase, in one form or another, in the decades prior to the 1970s, but no one has found a recorded use prior to 1976.

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faggot

How did a word meaning a bundle of sticks become an epithet for a gay man? It was process of gradual semantic shift over several centuries and continents.

The ultimate origin of faggot, the word for a bundle of sticks, is unknown. The English word comes from the French fagot. There is an apparent cognate in the Italian fagotto, so there may be some common Latin root. But if so, it has been lost. From Cursor Mundi, a Northumbrian poem from before 1300, as it appears in Göttingen University Library MS. Theol. 107:

Suord ne fir forgat he noght,
And ȝong ysaac a fagett broght.
(Sword nor fire he forgot not,
And young Isaac a faggot brought.)1

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face

The English word face is taken from the French and ultimately comes from the Latin facia, meaning originally appearance, visage, and a bit later the front part of the head. In English, this order is reversed with the later Latin meaning appearing first. From Saints’ Lives, a manuscript from c.1290, found in the Early South English Legendary (1887):

More blod thar nas in al is face.
(More blood there than in all his face.)

The sense of outward appearance, look, or semblance appears in English a bit later, even though this is the original sense of the Latin root. From Chaucer’s The Parlement of Foules, c.1381:

And right as Aleyn, in the Pleynt of Kynde,
Devyseth Nature of aray and face,
in swich aray men myghte hire there fynde.
(As right as Alan, in the Complaint of Gender,
devised nature an order and face,
in such array might find her there.)

The use of face to mean reputation and honor in the phrases to save face and to lose face are calques of Chinese brought into the language by 19th century English expatriates. Tiu lien in Chinese means literally to lose face and metaphorically to be humiliated or have one’s reputation besmirched. From Robert Hart’s 1876 These From the Land of Sinim:

Arrangements by which China has lost face.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Middle English Dictionary)

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