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.


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 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.


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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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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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)


The exact origin of this word meaning an overwhelming yen or craving is unknown. It obviously refers to the name Jones, but exactly how it developed is uncertain. The 1962 edition of Maurer and Vogel’s Narcotics and Narcotic Addiction glosses it as:

Jones. A drug habit.

Claude Brown’s 1965 Manchild In the Promised Land uses it to mean the symptoms of heroin withdrawal:

My jones is on me...something terrible. I feel so sick.

By 1970, it had generalized into any desire or yearning. From Clarence Major’s Dictionary of Afro-American Slang from that year:

Jones: a fixation;...compulsive attachment.

(Source: Historical Dictionary of American Slang)


Charles Darwin will forever be associated with the “Theory of Evolution,” but while Darwin is the father of modern evolutionary theory, he is not the first to use that term to describe the gradual change in living things over time.

The word evolution is from the Latin evolutionem, which meant the unrolling of a scroll (book). It was used metaphorically to describe the orderly playing out of preordained events. From Henry More’s Complete Poems (1647):

Evolution Of outward forms spread in the worlds vast spright.

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ethnic cleansing

The term ethnic cleansing, a euphemism for genocide, came to the fore in the 1990s with the war in the former Yugoslavia. On 2 August 1991, a Washington Post article used the term in a translation of a Croatian political statement:

The Croatian political and military leadership issued a statement Wednesday declaring that Serbia’s “ obviously the ethnic cleansing of the critical areas that are to be annexed to Serbia.”

The history of the term is much older though. The term ethnically clean dates to a decade earlier, in a 12 July 1982 New York Times article about the Serbian province of Kosovo:

The nationalists have a two-point platform, according to Becir Hoti, an executive secretary of the Communist Party of Kosovo, first to establish what they call an ethnically clean Albanian republic and then the merger with Albania to form a greater Albania.

The term social cleansing, referring to the removal of the poor and otherwise undesirable dates to the 1970s. From D.J. Olsen’s 1976 Growth of Victorian London:

Long before the very rich began to covet converted workmen’s cottages the social cleansing of Chelsea had begun.

And the use of cleansing to refer to purging of minorities in an area or region dates to the 1936 in translation in the American Political Science Review of the German Säuberungsaktion:

In Berlin, for example, there was a cleansing process (Säuberungsaktion), directed against Marxists, Jews, and others who were alleged to be enemies of the state, involving wholesale charges of corruption and inefficiency.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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