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Here’s A Word ...Or Two

January 27, 2011
by Jane Whitmore

Words are wonderful. We see the birth of new words (the fairly new "ginormous" comes to mind) and the overuse of other words ("viral" has recently come under attack). Daily we hear the use and abuse of thousands of words.

For Christmas I received two books -- one on words and the other on phrases. "Informal English" by Jeffrey Kacirk is billed as "A fascinating collection of lost and fast fading American colloquialisms." "More Tea, Vicar?" by Nigel Rees is "An embarrassment of domestic catchphrases." Both are the type of book you could read a page or two and put down for another time, as each entry is brief.

In "Informal English" there's an entry for "bossy in a bowl" described as beef stew; from Latin bos, an ox. This made me think about when I first learned about a "ditch chicken." The Sidles were celebrating the anniversary of their business, I believe, and they advertised they would be serving ditch chicken stew. We went out, learned that a ditch chicken is a pheasant, and enjoyed it for lunch.

Here are some words and phrases, that we may or may not have heard, from "Informal English":

"Get a wiggle on" meaning to hurry. "You'll have to get a wiggle on to catch that train," used or originating in Indiana. I?remember my dad using that phrase rather often.

"Fishing for love" meaning not catching any fish. "Have any luck??No, I'm fishing for love," used or originating in Northwest Arkansas. We have done a lot of fishing on Lake of the Woods, but my Uncle Wes never said he was fishing for love. The fish just plain weren't biting.

"Long-handled underwear" meaning warm underwear having ankle-length legs and usually long sleeves, the phrase used or originating in Canada. We could all use some long-handled underwear this cold Iowa winter.

"Swiddle," "Swilge" and "Swoggle" are all used or originated in the Ozarks. Swiddle means to stir; to dip. "He kept a-swiddlin' his finger in the soup." Swilge means to wash, to rinse, as a woman may swilge a churn. Swoggle means to dip or stir. "Swoggle yer bread in them sogrums."

"Bleenie" is a frankfurter in Eastern Iowa. That's a new one to me.

"More Tea, Vicar?" offers some recognizable phrases and offers some insight into their origin:

"(To) rain cats and dogs" meaning 'to rain extremely heavily.' Known by 1738 (Swift, Polite Conversation), though there is a 1652 citation: 'raining dogs and polecats'. Shelley wrote 'raining cats and dogs' in a letter to a friend (1819). There is no very convincing explanation for this phrase. According to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1977), it comes from the days when street drainage was so poor that a heavy rain storm could easily drown cats and dogs. After the storm people would see a number of dead cats and dogs and think it looked as if they had fallen out of the sky. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1989) suggests, on the other hand, that in northern mythology cats were supposed to have great influence on the weather and dogs were a signal of wind, 'thus cat may be taken as a symbol of the downpouring rain, and the dog of the strong gusts of wind accompanying a rain-storm.'

"Snug as a bug in a rug" meaning 'well-fitting and/or extremely warm and comfortable'. Usually ascribed to Benjamin Franklin, the American writer and philosopher, who mentioned a type of epitaph in a letter to Miss Georgiana Shipley (26 September 1772) on the death of her pet squirrel, 'Skugg':?'Here Skugg lies snug/As a bug in a rug.' There are earlier, similar uses. In 1706 Edward Ward in The Wooden World Dissected had the similar 'He sits as snug as a Bee in a Box' and in Thomas Heywood's play A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603) there is 'Let us sleep as snug as pigs in pease-straw.'

Now that may be more than you wanted to learn today, but aren't words fun?

 
 
 

 

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