Word Odyssey: Opening Pandora’s Box

To feed your inner nerd, today I’m going to open up Pandora’s box. I’ve been boning up on well worn expressions, so today’s theme is the stories behind some of these sayings. If you have a bone to pick with this show, put a sock in it. That phrase originated with Old Victrolas, which didn’t have volume control, but did have those huge speakers, so when the kids played the music too loud, Dad would yell “put a sock in it!”

All right, it’s time to spill the beans, which means to cough up secrets. One source says spill the beans originally meant accidentally knocking over a pot of beans, while another claims it began as a reference to vomiting. I haven’t been able to pin it down, so I’ll move on to something more delectable, eating humble pie, which is to accept humiliation. You might guess that the “humble” comes from “humilis”, Latin for lowly—literally, on the ground—but that’s not quite the way it happened. The word numbles, which also has a Latin origin, referred to the cheap parts of deer and other animals, like the intestines. While the Lord and Lady dined on venison, the servants ate meat pies made of numbles. The “n” got dropped, leading to umble pie, which then became a pun for humiliation, so that an “h” was added making a new word: humble.

Politicians often proclaim their humility, but not Teddy Roosevelt. His diplomatic doctrine was to speak softly, but carry a big stick, which he picked up from a West African proverb. The expression is now better known as “walk softly, but carry a big stick.”

Winston Churchill carried a big stick, but he did not walk softly, nor eat humble pie, although when rallying the British against the Nazis he did humbly proclaim that “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”, which is now popularly contracted as blood, sweat and tears. Churchill didn’t invent that phrase, nor did he invent a sheep in sheep’s clothing, which he used to ridicule his adversary Clement Attlee, but he did popularize this ironic alteration of the New Testament proverb to be wary of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Winston Churchill definitely was a big enchilada, the man in charge. But that term wasn’t coined until the Watergate tapes recorded John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman proposing to offer up Attorney General John Mitchell as a prize to investigators, with Haldeman describing Mitchell “as high up as they’ve got”, and Ehrlichman agreeing that he is the big enchilada. Later in jail, Ehrlichman explained to columnist William Safire that when growing up in California he cooked a lot of big enchiladas.

Ehrlichman was in jail because he was hoisted with his own petard. I had always guessed that this peculiar expression referred to some kind of pulley, with “petard” being slang for rear end. Not true. A “petard” was a primitive grenade, which sometimes blew up on the man lighting the fuse, hoisting him into the air. As Hamlet put it, “For ‘tis the sport to have the engineer, hoist with his own petard.”

The Watergate pursuers got the last laugh, with some, like Bob Woodward, who wrote best-sellers about the failed cover up, laughing all the way to the bank. That expression was popularized by Liberace, who was frequently savaged by critics because of his flamboyant glitz. Liberace responded with irony, saying that he was crying all the way to the bank, later altered to laughing. Liberace’s costumes were over the top, meaning outrageously excessive, but that phrase had a more grim beginning. During World War I, soldiers had to scramble out of their trenches, exposing them to enemy fire, which they called going over the top.

Ah, there are so many great expressions, but I’m going to have to give them short shrift, and conclude today’s column by explaining that a shrift was a penance given by a priest to a condemned man, and since he was wanted on the scaffold, it had to be short. The end.

Word Odyssey is a weekly column on words, their origins and the stories that go with them. It appears each Thursday on The Range.