fritz, on the

On the fritz is rather mysterious in origin. Merriam-Webster gives a date of first use of 1902, but doesn’t provide a citation.1 Roy McCardell’s 1903 Conversations of a Chorus Girl also uses it:

They gave an open air [performance] that put our opera house show on the Fritz.2

The phrase is often popularly associated with the world wars and the fact that the Germans were nicknamed Fritz by the Allies in both wars. It’s commonly thought that the phrase has its origin in things German and bad, but as we can see this is not the case. The phrase appears well before the First World War.

1Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, edited by Frederick C. Mish, 11th (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003), 502.

2Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 822.

old army game

What exactly is the old army game, and where does the term come from? There are several definitions, all stemming from the same source.

It is first recorded in the 1890s, but in reference to the US Civil War some thirty years earlier. As for meaning, first it can refer to any of a number of specific gambling games, chuck-a-luck (a dice game), poker, or a shell game—so long as the game is played ruthlessly or the game is rigged. From John Philip Quinn’s 1890 Fools of Fortune: sometimes designated as “the old army game,” for the reason that soldiers at the front were often wont to beguile the tedium of bivouac by seeking relief from monotony in its charms.

Second, it can mean any form of trickery or deception. This later sense (about 1910) grew out of the first—gamblers would cheat. From the New York Evening Journal of 23 April 1910:

Possums are too sly to be caught on this old army game.

Third, by 1930 the meaning had shifted to that of evading responsibility, to passing the buck. The gambling sense gave way in favor of another activity for which soldiers are known for, but retained the connotation of ruthlessness. From Theodore Fredenburgh’s 1930 Soldiers March!:

It’s the old army game: first, pass the buck; second: never give a sucker an even break.

All three senses, a ruthless game, trickery, or passing the buck, are still in use today.

(Source: Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

over a barrel

The phrase over a barrel, meaning to be helpless or in a dire predicament, has been in use since at least 1939 when it was used in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

We keep a file on unidentified bullets nowadays. Some day you might use that gun again. Then you’d be over a barrel.

The metaphor is probably a reference to a prisoner being strapped over a barrel and flogged. Literal references to a barrel being used for flogging date back to the 19th century. This poem from 1869’s Nonsense by Brick Pomeroy uses over a barrel to refer to children being punished by a schoolteacher:

I’d like to be a school-marm,
And with the school-marms stand,
With a bad boy over a barrel
And with a spanker in my hand

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think outside the box

Outside The BoxThe phrase think outside the box is an allusion to a well-known puzzle where one has to connect nine dots, arranged in a square grid, with four straight lines drawn continuously without pen leaving paper.

The only solution to this puzzle is one where some of the lines extend beyond the border of the grid (or box). This puzzle was a popular gimmick among management consultants in the 1970s and 80s as a demonstration of the need to discard unwarranted assumptions (like the assumption that the lines must remain within the grid).

The term dates to at least to 1975 when it appears in the 14 July issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology:

We must step back and see if the solutions to our problems lie outside the box.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


The color is named after the fruit. The English word comes from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French orenge, which in turn is from Italian, where it appears in several forms, including arancio, narancia, and naranza. The Italians acquired the word and the fruit from Arab traders. In Arabic, the word is naranj. The Sanskrit word is naranga and in Tamil it is naram, so it is likely the Arabs obtained the fruit from India. Oranges were probably originally cultivated in southeast Asia.

The word’s English appearance is sometime before 1400 when it appears in J. Mirfield’s Sinonoma Bartholomei:

Citrangulum pomum, orenge.

It’s use to mean the color comes some 150 years later, when it appears in the Great Britain Statutes at Large of 1557:

Coloured cloth of any other colour or colours...hereafter mentioned, that is to say, scarlet, red, crimson, morrey, violet, pewke, brown, blue, black, green, yellow, blue, orange, [etc.].

The House of Orange (referring to the Dutch royal family or William and Mary of England) and the use of the term in Irish politics is of a different origin. This use derives from the town of Orange on the Rhone River in France and is etymologically unrelated to the color or the fruit. The House of Nassau, the Dutch royal family, acquired the principality of Orange in 1544. The province was returned to France in 1713, but the name was retained by the Dutch royalty. The Protestant William of Orange, or William III, co-ruled Britain with his wife Mary after her father, the Roman Catholic James II, was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The use of orange in Irish politics dates to this time, when Irish Protestants began using his name and coat of arms to denote loyalty to the crown.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

OK / okay

OK is the most successful of all Americanisms. It has invaded hundreds of other languages and been adopted by them as a word. Despite the term’s success, however, for years no one was really sure where the word came from. The origin of OK became the Holy Grail of etymology. Finally, in 1963 the Galahad of our story, Dr. Allen Walker Read of Columbia University uncovered the origin.

Read solved the mystery in a series of articles in American Speech in 1963-64. The term began as a facetious misspelling for all correct (oll korrect) in Boston newspapers in the spring of 1839. OK was the result of two editorial fads common in newspapers of the era.

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off the wall

The phrase off the wall, meaning wild, crazy, or eccentric is first unambiguously attested to in F.L. Brown’s 1959 Trumbull Park:

We all said thanks in our own off-the-wall ways.


Not that off-the-wall holyroller kind of clapping.

There is an earlier use from 1953 in the title of a blues tune by Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs. But as this tune is instrumental with no lyrics, the sense of the title is ambiguous. It may be intended in the sense of odd, or it may literally mean something taken down from a wall.

The originating metaphor is unknown, but it likely refers to some sport, a racquet-sport like squash, or perhaps baseball, where a ball may literally be played off the wall, often with wild and unpredictable bounces.

(Source: Historical Dictionary of American Slang)


No, a nightmare is not a dream about a scary horse. The origin is straightforward, but not obvious to the modern ear. The first syllable is easy, it is the same as the word night. It’s the mare part that makes people think that nightmares have to do with horses.

The word nightmare makes its appearance c.1300 in the St. Michael (Laud) manuscript:

Þe luþere gostes...deriez men in heore slep...And ofte huy ouer-liggez, and men cleopiet þe niȝt-mare.
(The wicked spirits...injured men in their sleep...And often lay on top of men, and men called them the nightmare.)

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The name for this songbird is from the Old English nehtægale, which appears in the Corpus Glossary manuscript from c.725. A modern spelling of the Old English would be nightgale. It’s a compound of night + galan (to sing). So a nightingale is a bird that sings at night.

The modern form nightingale appears c. 1275 in The Owl and the Nightingale:

An hule and one nigtingale. [One manuscript has it as nyhtegale]

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)


This most offensive of words in American speech dates to the late 16th century, although the modern spelling doesn’t appear until some two centuries later. The modern word nigger is a variant of an older term, neger, pronounced with a long /ee/ sound, which is still in use in Caribbean dialect. It comes from the French nègre, in use to mean a black person since at least 1516, and ultimately from the Latin niger, meaning black. The word negro comes from the same Latin root, although the route negro took into English was via Spanish, not French.

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