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:
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In the theater, they say “break a leg” to an actor just before he goes on stage, but it really means “good luck.”2
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 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.
Several people have emailed asking how Humphrey Bogart’s name became associated with a term meaning selfishness. Ah, how soon we forget the intricacies of ‘60s drug culture. The selfish connotation comes from hogging a marijuana cigarette. Someone who kept the joint in their mouth, hanging from their lip like Bogey, would be bogarting the joint. Instead of bogarting, one should pass it on to another. The term can be used for hoarding items other than pot.
The term is first attested to in the song Don’t Bogart Me, by Elliot Ingber and Larry Wagner, which appears on Fraternity Of Man’s eponymous album, released 24 June 1968 by ABC Records:
Don’t bogart that joint, my friend Pass it over to me.
The song was featured the next year in the movie Easy Rider and is on that movie’s soundtrack. (The song was later covered by the band Little Feat under the title Don’t Bogart That Joint.)
In some circles, there is a slightly different definition of bogarting. It is to get saliva all over the joint before passing it on—again from the imagery of the cigarette hanging from Bogey’s lip. But this sense seems to be used by a minority.
There is an older, unrelated meaning of the term—to be aggressive or bullying. It comes from the fact that Bogart played toughs in the movies.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Bob’s your uncle
This British catch phrase means all will be well or all will be taken care. The origin is not known.
Popular etymology says that it derives from a particular act of nepotism in the British government. Robert, Lord Salisbury, the prime minister (left), appointed Arthur Balfour, his nephew (right), to the post of Secretary for Ireland in 1887. Balfour was, at the time, considered young and a political lightweight, and the post was a high-profile, political plum currently embroiled in the question of Irish independence. Unfortunately for this great story, there is no evidence to link this act with the origin of the phrase.
The first citation in the OED is from 1937, appearing as an entry in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 2nd Edition. Partridge dates the phrase to c.1890, but Partridge’s dates are notoriously unreliable (he tended to insert his best guess instead of relying on actual citations), so this early date is questionable. The 1890 date works well for the Salisbury-Balfour story, but if the date is indeed closer to 1937, then that story becomes less tenable.
For his part, Partridge says the phrase may stem from the cant phrase All is bob, meaning all is safe.
In the publishing trade, a blurb is a testimonial to the book that is printed on the dust jacket. It is meant as an advertisement for the book. The origin of blurb is one of the more humorous etymologies.
Blurb was coined by the American humorist Gelett Burgess in 1907. According to his publisher, B.W. Huebsch, Burgess’s book, Are You a Bromide?, had been published and was selling well. At the annual trade association dinner that year the publisher distributed some five hundred copies of the book with a special jacket, as was the custom. It was also:
the common practise to print the picture of a damsel—languishing, heroic, or coquettish—anyhow, a damsel on the jacket of every novel.
Burgess provided a drawing of a particularly buxom and pulchritudinous blonde for the jacket and labeled her Miss Blinda Blurb. The name stuck, eventually including not only drawings of buxom women but also any excessive testimonial to the book.
From Burgess’s Burgess Unabridged, 1914:
Blurb 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher...On the “jacket” of the “latest” fiction, we find the blurb; abounding in agile adjectives and adverbs, attesting that this book is the “sensation of the year.”
Some pedants maintain that a blue moon is the second full moon of a calendar month—a rather rare occurrence. While this is certainly one of the meanings, the original meaning is more general, referring to any rare occurrence.
The original sense of blue moon is that of an absurd event that can never occur. The moon is never really blue and once in a blue moon is akin to when pigs fly. (Well actually, when a lot of dust is kicked up into the atmosphere, the moon can appear blue. The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 caused the moon to turn blue, as did late Indian monsoons in 1927 and Canadian forest fires in 1951.)
Book Review: New Partridge Dictionary of Slang & Unconventional English
Two weeks ago I received my copy of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor, from Amazon.com. This is an update of the work started by lexicographer Eric Partridge (1894-1979). First published in 1937, his slang dictionary was revised six times during his life and once by Paul Beale after his death. This new work is essentially a new reference rather than just a revision and updating of the earlier work. One can still see the influence of the Partridge originals in some of the entries, but it is quite different in research, scope, and presentation.Read the rest of the article...
If you listen to the television news long enough, you will hear someone address the Attorney General of the United States as General Gonzales. This usage always grates on my ear. The Attorney General is not a military officer and there is something unsettling about the chief law enforcement officer of a democracy assuming military pretensions. But as much as I dislike this particular form of address, the linguist in me recognizes that it is probably an inevitable development in the language.
The addressing of the attorney general as "general" is relatively recent, only becoming a practice when Janet Reno held the position from 1993-2001, during the Clinton administration. The problem with this form of address is that the general in the title functions as an adjective, denoting that the holder of the office is empowered to act in all cases to which the state is a party. The attorney general has general legal authority in all matters and the scope of his or her authority is not limited. The attorney general’s antithesis would be an attorney special or attorney particular, legal terms that are not used much today.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton