As a self-admitted “word nerd,” I love it when my kids want to know what something means. The English language is such a wonderfully complicated thing, and it’s fun to watch a kid’s comprehension grow along with her shoe size.
But even word nerds are sometimes at a loss to explain why we say things the way we do. We have a very literal 7-year-old in the house who is often mystified by clichéd phrases, so I did some research for her and for me, too. Because as much as I love the English language, some of it doesn’t make a “lick of sense.”
Acute: We heard this one at the doctor’s office recently. The word means an illness came on quickly and probably won’t last long. But when it’s used in a sentence like “He has acute bronchitis,” it sounds as if the sickness is “cute,” like Minnie Mouse or a Labradoodle.
But as far as I know, there has never been an adorable asthma or a darling case of diarrhea so maybe “acute” isn’t quite the right word.
“Close, but no cigar.” People say this when you come close to doing something but don’t quite make it. Why the cigar? Apparently it dates back to old carnival games, especially shooting games. If you won the carnival game, you were given a cigar as a prize. If you didn’t hit the target? Well, no cigar.
“Let the cat out of the bag.” It means a secret has been revealed. But the saying began in medieval times when dishonest traders would show a pig on sale in the market. When someone bought a pig, the live, wriggling pig would be handed over in a closed bag and the seller would tell the customer not to open it until later. Several miles down the road, the buyer would open the bag and discover he’d been tricked because the pig was actually just a cat, hence, “letting the cat out of the bag.”
“Break a leg.” This one is weird, I know. But people say this, especially to actors or anyone in a show, as a way of wishing them good luck. Long ago, people believed ghosts were lurking about that liked causing trouble for humans. So if the ghosts heard a person wish for something, they’d try to make sure the opposite thing happened. People who said “Break a leg,” were hoping the ghosts would fall for this reverse psychology trick and make something good happen during the show.
Crocodile tears: The phrase means somebody is faking it with meaningless, emotionally manipulative tears. People once believed crocodiles wept tears when they ate a human. Scientists have tested it, using a dry biscuit instead of a human, and they found that most crocodiles really do shed tears while they’re eating. But it’s just a side effect of all that chomping. Real crocodiles are apparently not at all sad to be eating, no matter what or who the snack may be.
“Dressed to the nines.” If someone says you’re “dressed to the nines,” it means you’re wearing something fancy. The word “nines” worked its way into this phrase because the nicest tailor-made suits were once made from nine yards of fabric. You could make a suit using less fabric but the fabric wouldn’t be cut in the same direction so the quality wouldn’t be as good. If you really wanted the best, you needed all nine yards, and that’s why you’d be described as “dressed to the nines.”
So now, dear daughter, you know more about this crazy world of words. Here’s hoping that when you’re dressed to the nines, you’ll break a leg in the big show and your performance will stir real emotion and not just crocodile tears. If you come “close but no cigar” to an Oscar, you might feel acute anxiety. So allow me to let the cat out of the bag: Awards are nothing more than words, which, as you can see, don’t always make much sense anyway.
Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.
Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography