Romancing History

Category: Why Do We Say That?

Speak Easy Slang

In January 1920, America went dry as the 18th amendment took effect prohibiting the manufacture, sale, transport and/or  consumption of alcoholic beverages. Speakeasies, or illegal drinking establishments, derived their nickname from the practice of asking patrons to be quiet, or speak easily, about the illegal bar’s location.  Also known as a Juice Joints, they flourished in big cities like New York and Chicago between 1920-1933.

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Here’s a list of phrases common during the time among those who fronted these illegal gin joints and those who frequented them.

Bootleggers is a euphemism for booze smugglers. They took they’re name from Cowboys who smuggled flat bottles of whiskey inside their boots onto Indian reservations to trade with the natives after the practice had been prohibited. Smugglers during Prohibition adopted their name.

Skid Road–A precursor to the term “Skid Row,” a skid road was the place where loggers hauled their goods. During Prohibition, these “roads” became popular meeting places for bootleggers, smugglers and gangsters to meet and do business.

Sing Like a Canary–informants who blabbled or “sang” to the the cops.

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Gangbusters was a 1930s radio program. The broadcast began with blaring sirens so anything loud and obnoxious comes on like “gangbusters.”

Teetotaler–A person who abstains from the consumption of alcohol. The phrase is believed to have originated within the Prohibition era’s temperance societies, where members would add a “T” to their signatures to indicate total abstinence (T+total-ers).

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Bathtub Gin–Homemade gin, usually of poor quality, that would be mixed with flavorings to improve the taste. Because the bottles were too tall to be mixed with water from a sink tap, metal or ceramic bathtubs would be used.  Though the phrase references gin specifically, it came to be used as a general term for any type of cheap homemade booze.


Hooch–any low-quality liquor, usually whiskey. The term originated in the late 1800s as a shortened version of “Hoochinoo,” a distilled beverage from Alaska that became popular during the Klondike gold rush. The phrase came back into heavy use in the 1920s.


White Lightening–The whiskey equivalent of bathtub gin; a highly potent, illegally made, and poor-quality spirit.

Dry–A  man or woman who is opposed to the legal sale of alcoholic beverages. Bureau of Prohibition agents were often referred to as Dry Agents. It also is used to reference places where alcohol is not served, i.e. a “dry country”.

Jake Walk–A paralysis or loss of muscle control in the hands and feet, due to an overconsumption of Jamaican ginger, a.k.a. Jake, a patent medicine with a high alcohol content. The numbness led sufferers to walk with a distinct gait that was also known as Jake leg or Jake foot. Jamaican ginger, a patent medicine with a high alcohol content – so high that authorities insisted manufacturers up the ginger content so that it became bitter and unpalatable. Bootleggers responded by adding a plasticizer, tricresyl phospate, that would fool government tests and keep it drinkable for those who used it recreationally. Unfortunately, the additive turned out to be a neurotoxin and some 50,000 people fell victim to jake-walk or jake-foot which often led to  permanent paralysis.

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A Blind Pig–low class drinking establishments often located in counties or municipalities that had voted themselves “dry.”  They often charged admission to view some kind of attraction like a pig painted in stripes or other such “exotic” creatures. Admission, surely by coincidence, included a free glass of whisky. Also known as blind tigers, the owner’s identities were often concealed, even from its patrons.

Here’s more terms from the Gangsters and Speakeasies of the 1920s

  • Babe, Bim, Broad, Doll or Dame – A woman
  • Moll – A gangster’s girlfriend
  • Bearcat – A fiery woman
  • Dumb Dora -A stupid woman
  • Sheba -A woman with sex appeal
  • Stool-pigeon – A person who informs the police
  • Peaching – Informing
  • Finger – Identify
  • Bulls – Plainclothes police
  • Gum-shoe – Detective
  • Copper – Policeman
  • Bracelets – Handcuffs
  • Big House or Can – Jail or prison
  • In Stir – In jail
  • Blow – Leave
  • Bop, Bump or Clip – To kill
  • Chopper Squad – Guys with machine guns
  • Pack Heat – Carry a gun
  • Goon – Thug
  • Grifter – Con man
  • Boozehound – a drunk
  • Meat Wagon – Ambulance
  • Chicago Overcoat – A coffin
  • Big Sleep – Death
  • Bean-shooter or Gat – A gun
  • Packing Heat – Carrying a gun
  • Can-opener – Safecracker
  • Glomming – Stealing
  • Bent – Stolen
  • Cabbage or Scratch – Money
  • Ice – Diamonds
  • Boiler or Bucket – A car
  • Cake-eater – A lady’s man
  • Dewdropper – Unemployed man who spends his days sleeping
  • Shylock – A loanshark
  • Sheik – An attractive man
  • Giggle Water – liquor
  • Bangtail – Racehorse

Prohibition ended in 1933, but the colorful colloquialisms it brought about continue to add character to American language today.


Listen Up, Y’All and Learn Some Southern Slang!

southerngrammarchartIf you think y’all is a contraction for ‘you all’ you’d be partially correct. Y’all is always plural referring to more than one other person. Modern English doesn’t have a word for the plural form of you. During the middle ages, thou was the singular from of you and ye was the plural. Over time “ye all” evolved into “y’all.” To further complicate things, if you’re talking to a group of more than three people in the south, you say “all y’all”.

So who put the “y’all” in the Southern slang?

The Scotch-Irish immigrants that journeyed to America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although the first known reference of the term was from Queen Elizabeth I in 1573, today it is almost exclusively an Americanism. As it turns out, the Scotch-Irish (also know as  Scots-Irish) weren’t very Scottish. While some had fled Scotland following an unsuccessful rebellion to Ulster in Ireland, the majority were Irish. The rest were religious refugees who settled in Ulster from the English counties of Cumberland and Northumberland. Others were  from Flanders, Germania or France (the French Huguenots like Paul Revere).  What bound them together was their embrace of reformed Christianity and their rejection of established state religion. By the time they emigrated to America, by and large they considered themselves Irish. It wasn’t until the mass immigration during the Great Famine of the 1840s that the term resurfaced as a means of distinguishing themselves from the new Roman Catholic immigrants.

The Sctoch-Irish settled primarily in the south, especially in the areas of the Appalachian mountains. Their unique history and cultural identity is evident in many words that have seeped into the American vernacular.

Rednecks Despite what you may think, the term didn’t arise from the sunburned necks of these early farmers. During the 1600s, protestant insurgents wore a red scarf around their necks to signify their allegiance  to the rebellion against the state churches of Scotland and Ireland.

Backwooods When they arrived in America, they weren’t necessarily greeted with open arms. The English considered them dirty, rebellious, poor and uneducated. In order to avoid the crowded conditions along the eastern seaboard and the discrimination they encountered in the cities and small towns in the colonies, they settled further west. Because they inhabited the areas behind civilization pushing the English colonial frontier, the English settlers said they lived in the backwoods.

hillbillyHillbilly Although following the Civil War the term took on a derogatory stereotype of being backward, prone to violence, and ignorant of modern customs, the term is believed to have originated from the Scotch-Irish themselves. “Hill-folk” referred to people that preferred isolation from the greater society and lived in the Scottish highlands while “billy” meant “comrade” or “companion.”

Some other phrases we can trace to America’s frontier busting Scotch-Irish ancestors:

Barking Up the Wrong TreeMistaken/Picked a fight with the wrong person. When hunting dogs chased raccoons up a tree and didn’t notice the critters jumped into another, they were said to be barking up the wrong tree.

Fly off the HandleLose your temper unexpectedly, overreact. As the Scotch Irish settled the frontier, they felled the dense forests of the eastern woodlands. A sturdy ax was essential to their success. Men carved their own handles and then attached them to ax heads shipped from the East. Because they were crudely fitted together, ax heads were known to fly off the handle, posing the possibility of serious injury to those nearby.

Davy Crockett was a frontier trailblazer of Scotch-Irish ancestry.

Davy Crockett was a frontier trailblazer of Scotch-Irish ancestry.

Ax to GrindPersonal grievance with someone, usually a strong selfish motivation. On the frontier, an ax was sharpened on a sandstone grinding wheel powered by a foot pump. When you were angry enough at someone, sharpening your ax meant you were ready for a fight.

TrailblazerThe first person to do something. This phrase came into being as the Scotch-Irish pushed their way deeper and deeper into the American frontier. Since they were exploring uncharted territory and didn’t want to get lost, they marked a trail by hacking bark off the trees. This method of marking trees was known as “blazing” since the mark resembled the white blaze on a horse’s nose.

The South today is known for its colorful style of self-expression. Although they can leave a Yankee scratching their head, there is a unique charm to these down-to-earth phrases for stating exactly what’s on the speaker’s mind.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite Southern phrases and their translations. If these don’t just dill your pickle, I don’t know what will.

“That possum’s on the stump!” Translation: That’s as good as it gets!

“His knickers are in a knot.” Translation: Look out, someone’s angry!

hissyfit“About to pop!” Translation: You’re full after eating a lot

“A mind to!” Translation: You are thinking about doing something.

“His heart is a thumpin’ gizzard.” Translation: You’re cold-hearted and cruel

“She could start an argument in an empty house.” Translation: You’re cantankerous!

“Cain’t never could.” Translation: You’ll never do it if you don’t try

“He thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow.” Translation: You’re conceited or vain.

“Hit the bushes!” Translation: Go to the bathroom!

“Huzzy” Translation: a bad woman like the kind that will steal your man!

jerk-a-knot“He squeezes a quarter so tight the eagle screams.” Translation: You’re cheap.

“Cattywampus.” Translation: askew or awry; cockeyed

“Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash.” Translation: You’re broke.

“That woman is talking with her tongue out of her shoe.” She’s lyin’.

“He’s only got one oar in the water.” Translation: He’s not too bright.”

“Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit.” Translation: Who would’ve known?

chickenhead“You don’t watch out, I’m gonna cream yo’ corn.” Translation: Somebody’s in real trouble!

“He fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.” Translation: You’re not too good lookin’.

“Fat as a tick.” Translation: Full and well-fed.

The richness of Southern speech goes far beyond one or two-word expressions and as you’ve seen, there’s a Southern expression for every occasion.

I’m just happier than a dead pig in sunshine that all y’all stopped by the blog today!

What is your favorite Southern expression? Feel free to share it in the comments below!


Why Do We Say That? Slang from the Mighty Mississippi

Great Steel Bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis, MO circa 1870s

Great Steel Bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis, MO circa 1870s

The Mississippi River has a vaulted place in American history and legend. The Mississippi is often viewed as a boundary between the eastern, western and southern regions of the Untied States and is frequently used as an identifying landmark, such as “the oldest town west of the Mississippi.” But many people are unaware of the river’s influence on our everyday speech.

flatboat_bargee1500x1212Have you ever barged in to someone and ended up causing a commotion? Well that phrase gets its origins from the flimsy hard to control barges that were commonplace on the Mississippi. At one point, there were so many barges operating on the river, they would bump into or “barge into” one another slowing down river traffic.

Why is someone in trouble over a barrel? If a steamboat passenger went overboard, they were hauled back on deck and laid on their stomach over a barrel. Someone would push on their back applying pressure to their abdomen and forcing any water they had swallowed to expel. So when you’re in trouble, you’re said to be “over a barrel.”

Gorgeous steam-powered Mississippi Riverboat

Gorgeous steam-powered Mississippi Riverboat

Have you ever needed to let off steam? In 1803, Robert Fulton invented the steam engine allowing boats to travel up the Mississippi River for the first time. But these new engines were highly combustible and often exploded injuring and/or killing those on board. Eventually safety valves were added to the boilers allowing steam to escape when they reached capacity preventing the engine from blowing up. So today, when someone “lets of steam”, they are just releasing a little pent up emotion or energy.

raftEven river travel was not without social distinction. Flats or rafts were rectangular, flat-bottomed boats without keels. This meant that they were relatively easy to build, but this simple and affordable design also destined them to be an awkward one-way craft. They were built in various sizes and layouts depending on the load they would carry and the distance to be traveled.  A raft was the smallest, least fancy way to ship goods or travel on the river and a riff was the oar used to steer it. So people of lower social status who traveled this way became known as riffraff.

StacksIn addition to the riffraff, there were also some highfalutin’ folks traveling the Mississippi River. Wealthy patrons often sat on the upper deck near the smoke stacks where they could catch a breeze and get relief from the stifling heat. The high fluted edges of the smoke stacks kept the smoke away from these customers while the lower classes suffered in cramped, windowless quarters below deck. So when someone’s speech or writing is laden with a pompous or pretentious tone, they are said to be “highfalutin’.”

Ever wondered why a cabin on a ship is referred to as a stateroom? In the early days of riverboats rooms weren’t numbered but named after states, “The Alabama” or “The Mississippi,” lending the quarters a more elegant feel for their wealthy patrons. While cabins may be numbered today, the legacy of the stateroom continues on cruise ships all around the world.

The magnificent salon of the Grand Republic Riverboat circa 1876

The magnificent salon of the Grand Republic Riverboat circa 1876

After the civil war, the rapid growth of railroads cut into the profits of steamboats traveling the Mississippi River. In order to keep attracting their wealthy clientele, ships were built bigger with more elegant staterooms. Grand theaters offered live entertainment and casino gambling. So when someone is flamboyant or showy, they are said to be “showboating.”

Just as author Mark Twain immortalized life on the river in his 1883 memoir Life on the Mississippi, so does the prominence of this great American waterway remain alive in our common vernacular.


“Bully” for Teddy Roosevelt!

Teddy RooseveltBest known as the 26th President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt was also a soldier, explorer, outdoorsman, author, reformer and trailblazer. Immortalized in stone on Mt. Rushmore, President Roosevelt’s influence stretches far beyond today’s history text books. It can be heard in many common words and expressions the former president popularized and we still use today.

Square Deal (a fair bargain or treatment) The Square Deal was President Theodore Roosevelt’s domestic program formed upon three basic ideas: conservation of natural resources, control of corporations, and consumer protection. These three demands are often referred to as the “three C’s” of Roosevelt’s Square Deal.

“The labor unions shall have a square deal, and the corporations shall have a square deal.” –TR, 1903.squaredeal

Hat in the Ring (The official beginning of a political campaign.) When amateurs wanted to challenge the winner of a boxing match for a chance to win a lucrative prize, they would throw their hat in the ring. A great sportsman, Teddy Roosevelt is credited with adapting this phrase from the outrageously popular sport of boxing to the political arena.

“My hat is in the ring, the fight’s on.”—TR, 1912. (Roosevelt said this when asked if he’d be running for president again that year.)

Mollycoddle (to treat someone indulgently or protectively; to pamper or baby)

“The Mollycoddle vote [consists of] the people who are soft physically and morally, or have a twist in them which makes them acidly cantankerous and unpleasant.” –TR, 1913. He also used this word to  describe the game of baseball, a sport for which he had no favor.

Pussyfoot (to avoid making a definite decision or commitment often out of fear or doubt)

“I think they are inclined to pussy-foot, and it is worse than useless for them to nominate me, unless they are prepared for an entirely straightforward and open campaign.”—TR, 1916. (This was Roosevelt’s response when asked about his odds of again becoming the Republican presidential nominee.)

Muckrakers (The name given to US journalists and other writers who exposed corruption in politics and business in the early 20th century.) The term was first used by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. The phrase was modified from a character in John Bunyan’s novel Pilgrim’s Progress. “The men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck”—TR, 1906.BullMooseParty

Strong as A Bull Moose (to demonstrate formidable strength) Teddy Roosevelt coined this phrase after he received the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential nomination. After failing to win the presidential nomination in 1912, he formed the Bull Moose Party founded on progressive principles

      “I am as strong as a Bull Moose and you can use me to the limit.” –TR, 1900.

 Bully Pulpit (A public office or position of authority that provides an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.) “Bully”, one of Roosevelt’s favorite expressions, means “grand” or “excellent.”

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”—TR, 1909.

'Promise me we'll have meaningful wedding vows without any weasel words...'

 Weasel Words (soft and ambiguous language; words used in order to avoid being clear or direct.)

“One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called ‘weasel words.’ When a weasel sucks eggs, the meat is sucked out of the egg. If you use a ‘weasel word’ after another, there is nothing left of the other.” –TR, 1916.

Nailing Jelly to the Wall (something difficult-to-impossible to understand or describe). I don’t hear this too much anymore but this phras was osed to be one of my grandmother’s favorite expressions.

“Somebody asked me why I did not get an agreement with Columbia. They may just as well ask me why I do not nail cranberry jelly to the wall.” –TR, 1912.

TR’s exuberant, no-nonsense personality impacted everything he touched from politics to nature conservancy leaving behind not only a legacy as one of America’s most popular presidents, but many additions to the American lexicon as well.

Is there a phrase above you use or hear frequently? One you’ve never heard?


Irish In Our English, Why Do We Say That?

Even if you didn’t drink a Guinness yesterday, eat corn beef and cabbage, or dye your favorite cookie or beverage green, chances are you may have honored the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day without even realizing it!

Irish immigrants have been a part of the American story since its beginning and Gaelic, the ancient language of Ireland, can be found in many of the expressions we speak or read daily.

Daniel Cassidy, in his book How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads, shows us the depth of Irish contribution to American English.  After flipping through a Gaelic dictionary, he began searching for the phonetic equivalents of words English dictionaries described as being “from unknown origins.” Phrases he grew up hearing as part of the Irish working-class vernacular in New York City.

A sketch of the residents of Five Points, a famously Irish neighborhood in New York, published in 1885.

A sketch of the residents of Five Points, a famously Irish neighborhood in New York, published in 1885.

Mr. Cassidy notes that “[Irish Gaelic] was a back-room language, whispered in kitchens and spoken in the saloons.” Keeping the language and expressions of the homeland alive became a way for often disciminated against Irish Catholics to communicate.

Did you ever tickle your children and tell them to “Cry Uncle?” If you did, you can thank an Irishman for that expression. It turns out the Gaelic word, anacal means mercy. So when a couple of Irishmen were fighting and one begged for mercy, to the uniformed American ear it sounded like “uncle.”

Even the word “dude” comes from the Irish word, dúid, or a foolish-looking fellow, a dolt. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, dudes were guys who came down to the Five Points section of Manhattan to chase the “colleens” or ladies and appraently made a fool of themselves doing so.

Full of BaloneyHow about the American phrase, “you’re full of balooney?”  The Gaelic words béal (mouth) and ónna (foolish) combined for this famous expression meaning “you made it up” or “you have no idea what your talking about.”

Even the hippies can thank the Irish for one of their favorite expressions from the 1970s, “You dig?” comes from the Irish, “tuig,” or understand.


Here’s a short list of Irish-influenced English words from Cassidy’s book:

Scram: scaraim (to get away)
Boogaloo : bogadh luath (moving fast; moving quickly; fast rocking)
Crony : comh-roghna (fellow favorites, mutual pals)
Phoney : fáinne (a ring, later a “fawney”, a fake gold ring)snazzy_banana
Slugger : slacaire (a mauler or bruiser)
Scam : ’s cam é (it is fraud, crooked, a trick)
Puss : pus (lip, a mouth, a sulky expression, a pouty mouth)
Gimmick: camag (trick or deceit, or a hook or crooked stick)

Snazzy : snasah (polished, glossy and elegant)
Swell : sóúil (luxurious, rich and prosperous)
Spiel : speal (cutting satiric words, scythe)
Slum : ’s lom (a bleak, bare, exposed place)
Fluke : fo-luach(rare reward or occurrence)

Overheard but often misunderstood, these Irish words and expressions seeped into American English and became mainstays of American slang. Words like “malarkey,” “doozy,” “humdinger,” “jerk,” “punk,” “swanky,” “grifter,” “bailiwick,” “sap,” “mug,” “wallop,” “helter-skelter,” “shack,” “shanty,” “slob,” “slacker” and “knack” all have their origins in Irish Gaelic.  Even expressions like “gee whiz.” “holy cow” and “holy mackerel” are Anglicized versions of Irish expressions according to Cassidy.

With all these phrases to choose from, surely you must see the Irish in your own every day speech.

Which Irish influenced words are part of your everyday jargon?




Dark Horses and Lame Ducks, Why Do We Say That?

It’s political season in America.

You can’t turn on the television without hearing about a skeleton in someone’s closet or the most recent outlandish comment made by one candidate or another. But most likely you’ve heard anchors and reporters using political jargon too.

For example, after a candidate throws their hat in the ring they might make a stump speech, but even a dark horse candidate is hoping to make the current president a lame duck.

So what does all this crazy political jargon mean? And even more interesting, why do say it?

TRHatinRingWhen someone throws his hat in the ring it simply means he is willing to participate. During the 19th century, boxing became a huge fad in the United States. In large cities, unscrupulous entrepreneurs organized boxing matches in local pubs, gaming halls or social clubs with winners getting a share of the take. You literally threw your hat into the ring to challenge the fighter. Speculation may surround a person who is considering a run for political office, but when someone throws their hat in the ring, they have declared themself a candidate. It was Teddy Roosevelt, an avid sportsman, who first adapted this phrase to the political realm. When asked whether or not he would seek re-election in 1912 the president responded, “my hat’s in the ring, the fight’s on.”

If a candidate enters the race with little name recognition and or experience, he is often tagged a dark horse. This phrase can also be attributed to the sporting world. In horse racing, when an unknown horse entered the race and the odds makers didn’t know how to evaluate it, they referred to him as “dark” because he came out of the dark shadows to upset the odds. The phrase first appeared in The Young Duke (1831), “A dark horse, which  had never been thought of…rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph.” In 1844, the expression was first used to refer to James Polk, an undistinguished politician from Tennessee who won the Democratic Party’s nomination over a slew of more prominent candidates on the ninth ballot at the party’s convention. He went on to become the eleventh president of the United States.

 Stump Speaking, Nineteenth Century Painting by George Caleb Bingham

Stump Speaking, Nineteenth Century Painting by George Caleb Bingham

While campaigning, candidates make stump speeches as they travel from town to town repeating a prepared text explaining their platform and what they hope to accomplish. Today the candidates usually speak from an elevated platform where they can be seen. But two hundred years ago, a candidate would literally stand on the stump of a felled tree to be seen while giving his speech and the phrase has stuck ever since. When candidates are “stumping”, they are traveling around the country speaking for or against an important piece of legislation or political issue.

If an incumbent candidate loses his or her election, he is considered a lame duck. Lame duck is a British phrase that means someone is disabled or ineffectual. Eventually it became slang on the British Stock Exchange to refer to someone who couldn’t be relied upon to pay their debts. Abraham Lincoln is credited with first applying the phrase to politics when he said a “senator or representative out of business is a sort of lame duck. The phrase has become part of the American political lexicon referring to an incumbent candidate who loses their election and has little power or influence. They limp out of office like a lame duck.

There’s no doubt that English can be confusing. Whether you support a dark horse candidate or hope your favorite won’t become a lame duck, it’s definitely fascinating to learn how popular expressions got their start and how their meaning has evolved over time.

What political jargon would you like to know more about?


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