I often think that I would be unable to express myself, were it not for expressions. Unfortunately, however, when I work expressions into conversations today, young people in particular look at me as if I was from outer space.
Many of the expressions I use come from a Perry side of my family that never heard an expression it did not like. I am privy to the origination of many of the expressions that come from within the family circle, others are pretty much self-explanatory, but still others have remained a mystery to me over the years, i.e.:
- What the Sam Hill?
- More nerve than a canal horse.
- It's the wreck of the Hesperus.
- By the skin of my teeth.
- Dead as a door nail.
- Peck's bad boy.
- Going to the dogs.
- Scarce as hens' teeth.
- ...to list but a few.
A little research recently cleared up some of the mystery for me and it turned out to be a rather interesting and surprising exercise.
"He's Peck's bad boy!" always means that some poor young fellow behaves poorly, or frequently gets into trouble. But where does that expression come from?
My Grandmother Perry's maiden name was "Peck" and I always thought that "bad boy" was possibly a reference to one of her male relatives. Come to find out, "Peck's Bad Boy" was the fictional star of newspaper stories and books created by George W. Peck in the late 1800s. (Peck wrote the stories, hence the naughty character became known as Peck's Bad Boy.) In the stories, Hennery (or Henry) Peck was a mischievous lad who loved to play sneaky pranks on others, especially his father, for the sheer pleasure of creating mayhem. The stories were a huge hit in their era, and the name Peck's Bad Boy became a popular term for any incorrigible rule-breaker. George Peck collected his stories into several books, most notably Peck's Bad Boy and His Pa (1883). Peck's Bad Boy was played by George M. Cohan in an 1891 stage adaptation of the stories. He was played in a 1921 silent film by Jackie Coogan (who the same year co-starred with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid and later was Uncle Fester on the TV sitcom The Addams Family) and in a 1934 'talkie' by a later child star, Jackie Cooper.
The expressions "Sam Hill " or "What the Sam Hill?" was born in the early 19th Century at a time when it was considered vulgar and improper to use profanity in civilized conversation. This included the word "hell".
One theory is that the expression was the result of altering the word "hell", using "hill" instead. Use of the name "Sam" is believed to have been derived from Samuel, the devil in Von Weber's opera Der Frieshuatz, first performed in New York in 1825. Putting those two words together, listeners were able to realize that the speaker was referring to hell.
There is another twist to this expression that has possibility. Col. Sam Hill was a real life character who ran for political office in New England many times in the 1800s, but never succeeded. The term "run like Sam Hill" came from this. It was synonymous to "hell", as in "Give 'em Sam Hill!" = "Give 'em hell!"
"Nerve of a canal horse": I've heard of quarter horses, race horses, farm horses, light horses, paint horses, gaited horses, draft horses and standard bred horses but what is a "canal horse"? Well, the noble horse, as so often seen throughout history, was an integral part and a key player in the inland canal system built to criss-cross England in 1760 and lasting well into the 1960s. Horses would be harnessed up to long "narrowboats" and barges (see photo above) to transport tonnes of coal, steel and cloth along the canals and rivers, often working up to 16 hours a day. Many of the pathways that the horses followed were dangerously close to the water's edge. Donkeys and mules had difficulty and often balked on the narrow paths, but horses dutifully and steadily plodded their way along, hence "the nerve of a canal horse".
"The skin of my teeth": I can't count the number of times that I have used this one, never realizing it had its roots in the Hebrew language, first appearing in the Geneva Bible (1560). In Job 19:20 it reads: "My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth." This was a change from an earlier translation by Miles Coverdale (1535) reading: "My bone hangeth to my skin, and the flesh is away, only there is left me the skin about my teeth."
Obviously we have no skin on our teeth, but Job is actually referring to his gums, the "skin" around his teeth. That expression has evolved in meaning and has come to mean narrowly escaping a situation by the thinnest margin. What can be thinner than the non-existent "skin of our teeth"?
"Dead as a door nail", meaning devoid of life, has it roots in literature and is one of the oldest of the expressions. The earliest recorded use of the phrase was a 1350 reference in print: "For but ich haue bote mi bale I am ded as a dorenail." William Shakespeare also used the expression in his King Henry VI, written in 1592.
"Wreck of the Hesperus" is a prototypical, pure 19th century poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow where a sailor takes his little daughter out for a boat ride and they wind up in a hurricane. The poem was not by any means Longfellow's best work and is mostly forgotten now, but lives on as a widely used phrase representing a disastrous wreckage i.e. "I feel like the wreck of the Hesperus!" or "That looks like the wreck of the Hesperus!"
"Going to the dogs" is a class oriented expression meaning someone who is down on their luck or hopelessly slipping from social graces, i.e. "He is going to the dogs!" The phrase is also often used to describe deterioration. For example: "I used to enjoy shopping in that store, but now it is "going to the dogs". The literal meaning is of giving food that was not fit for human consumption to dogs. In the 18th and 19th century England, as now, horse meat fell into the unacceptable category and it was the old and worn out horses that were most likely to be sent "to the dogs".
"Scarce as hens' teeth": Did you ever see a hen with teeth? No explanation necessary, but I throw this one in with the others because it always tickles my imagination.