[edit: pipped by Eliza. My thought is that since Dave asked for big list suggestions (additions or updates) it makes sense for me to put them here: but if any of my offerings generate any interest I’ll happily create a new thread.]
Wish list (with some thoughts on why they might be worthy additions, for what those thoughts are worth).
Skeleton in one’s closet/cupboard:
Not much to say, except I’m curious about the history of the term, and it seems like the type of term that belongs on the big list.)
Hold down the fort:
The newish twist here is that the term, along with some other expressions (at least a few of which may truly be insensitive), was identified by the Chief Diversity Officer as a term that should be avoided when possible by State Department employees on the grounds that it either is or could be taken to show an intolerant attitude towards Native Americans, based on the idea that the underlying metaphor presumes that the fort must be held in the event of a future attack by Native Americans. While not quite as fanciful as the folk etymologies that “picnic” and “nitty gritty” are racist in nature, this still seems like an elaborate attempt to assign a racist origin to a neutral-seeming term, as soldiers throughout history have held forts against attacks by a wide variety of people of various ethnicities and nationalities.
“Off the cuff” (remarks):
this one was discussed on Language Log. It appears to have been derived from an older, movie industry jargon term, “shooting off the cuff”, which referred to beginning filming on a movie without having written an actual script. The term “off the cuff” did not appear in print until the 1930s to 1940s, although the older variant appeared in scattered news stories in the 1920s, I believe. Around the time that the term began to become mainstream, Charlie Chaplin released a film in which a dancer reads notes on Chaplin’s cuff that presumably set out her choreography for her. This may have played a role in the term becoming more widespread, although this seems quite speculative to me, since it doesn’t appear that the actual phrase “off the cuff” is used in the film, nor have any articles discussing the movie been identified that use that term. And it seems to me that a movie industry term could go mainstream, and shift slightly in meaning along the way, simply as a result of the term gradually gaining momentum.
This one caught my eye because it was mentioned by a poster on Language Log as a term that is derogatory to the French, because the term is ostensibly used not because the dish is associated with France, but because “French” is being used to mean “not a”: French toast is not really toast, it’s fried. She analogized the expression to terms like Dutch treat (which is not really a treat), Dutch uncle (somebody who is not really your uncle), and Dutch courage (not really courage, but drunkenness). She clarified that the terms is not necessarily derogatory in the sense of French toast being viewed as a horribly untasty dish, but in the sense that the word “French” itself being used to mean “not really”, and that this is a derogatory use of the word French itself even if the dish it denotes has pleasant connotations. She may be right about Dutch uncle, but I was (and am) dubious of the French toast claim.
I’ve always assumed French Toast is so named because it is associated with France (whether accurately or not). And, sure enough, a little googling suggests that while the French did not “invent” French toast, they are known for a version of the dish (known in France as pain perdu, or lost bread, because stale bread that would otherwise be lost is typically used) whose recipe sounds broadly similar to the version that is typically served today under the name French toast. But one twist is that the specific term “French toast” shows up in a 1660 recipe book, “Accomplisht Cook”, but the recipe doesn’t sound much like pain perdu (the bread is dipped in a solution of wine, sugar, and orange juice). And this, apparently, is the first time that exact term shows up in print. So was this a nonce use of the term that is unrelated to its current usage, or was the term French bread applied to a wide range of dishes, including, but not limited to, ones resembling the classic recipe for pain perdu?
The term, unsurprisingly, has its share of popular folk etymogies, including the idea that it was invented by an American restauranteur in 1724 named Joseph French, who is said to have advertised it as “French Toast” because he never learned to use the apostrophe “s”. Another myth is that term was universally known as German toast, but was renamed French toast after WWI out of animus towards all things German (it was, in fact, sometimes called German toast, but the term French toast predates WWI by several centuries.)