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Where did those old-time phrases that we use today come from?

Apr 20, 2021, 11:46 AM
wild west barroom scene old-time phrases...
FILE: A man in a fringed leather jacket and cowboy hat holds a revolver at his waist as he argues with a seated fellow gambler in a staged photograph depicting a scene of drunken conflict during the Klondike Gold Rush, Alaska, early 1900s. (Photo by R.Y. Young/Hulton Archive/Getty IMages)
(Photo by R.Y. Young/Hulton Archive/Getty IMages)

Old-time phrases, relics of yesteryear and today, show up in our speech patterns all the time. But where did they originate?

Some of them clearly originated in the Old West, such as “die with your boots on,” apparently first used in the late 19th century to refer to the deaths of cowboys and others in the American West killed in gun battles or hanged.

But today, a person who “dies with their boots on” keeps working to the end.

The origins of more old-time phrases

Some of the following 11 old-time phrases in use today were born on the dusty trails of American West frontier towns in the mid-1800s. And some were already in circulation; they just became re-branded in an Old West way.

1. Ace in the Hole: This phrase means a hideout, safe house or a concealed gun, according to Top 100 Cowboy Expressions and Phrases. But today use of “Ace in the Hole” means:

  • An ace dealt and held face down, especially in stud poker.
  • An advantage or a resource kept back until the right opportunity presents itself: His ace in the hole is his political influence.

2. Bad Egg: A mean or untrustworthy person. Unpleasant and disappointing as a bad or spoiled egg would be when cracked open. Experts have found the earliest mentions of “bad egg” in American newspapers in the mid-1800s. There is also an English playground game called “bad egg.”

3. Baker’s Dozen: A reference to the number 13. (It’s widely believed that this phrase originated from the practice of medieval English bakers giving an extra loaf when selling a doze to avoid being penalized for selling short weight, according to The Phrase Finder.)

4. Chow: an informal name for a meal. It’s an American-English word that originated in California about 1856. It comes from the Chinese pidgin English chow-chow, “food,” which probably originated with the Chinese cha, “mixed.”

5. Calamity Jane: Martha Jane Cannary  was born May 1, 1852 and August 1, 1903. Today, we know her better as Calamity Jane, an American frontierswoman, sharpshooter and raconteur.

She was an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok, appearing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. She even received a memorialization in the game of poker that she loved so much. Players often refer to the Queen of Spades as a Calamity Jane.

6. Fair to Middlin’: To feel pretty good, to be in a good mood, according to Top 100 Cowboy Expressions and Phrases.

An American phrase, it entered common use as early as the 1820s. The term fair to middling originally referred to gradations of quality in cotton, sheep and other farm goods. Back in the day, sellers categorized goods as fine, good, fair, middling and poor. By the 1860s the phrase “fair to middling” evolved into common speech to mean average or slightly above average, according to Grammarist.

7. Fit to Be Tied: To be mad or angry. First appearing in the early 1800s, “fit to be tied” alludes to the practice of tying up uncontrollable mental patients. Tying up mental patients with rope or cloth gave way to the straitjacket, which was invented in France around 1790, according to the Grammarist.

8. In Apple Pie Order: To be in top shape, high quality or neatly arranged: Everything in the cupboard was in apple-pie order. It was first recorded in English in the late 1700s in seafarer Thomas Pasely’s journal. He wrote that the sailors were “clean and in apple-pie order on Sundays.”

Published in the memoirs of Sir Walter Scott by John Lockhart in 1839, Scott wrote in a letter, “The children’s garden is in apple-pie order.” 

9. Lick and a Promise: To do something haphazardly or half-assed. The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of “a lick and a promise” is from Walter White’s travel book “All Round the Wrekin” (1860): “We only gives the cheap ones a lick and a promise,” according to Grammarphobia. (The Wrekin is a hill in Shropshire, England.)

10. Mill, to go (or to be put) through:
To undergo hardship or rough treatment or grind down like grain in a mill. The figurative use of the term dates from the 19th century:

“We’ve all passed through that mill,” wrote Rolf Bolderwood in “A Colonial Reformer,” 1890. A newer phrase, meaning the same thing, dates from the mid-1900s: “To put someone through the wringer,” a device for wringing water from wet clothes, mops or other objects. Used figuratively in this example: “When they suspect child abuse, the police really put parents through the wringer.

11. That Dog Won’t Hunt: An argument or idea that won’t work or come to fruition. Common in the Ozarks and elsewhere for anything, especially a plan or idea, that won’t work or that isn’t practical.

“It looks good on paper, but that dog won’t hunt.”

A folksy expression originating in the American South where dogs commonly hunt raccoons and other wild animals. Alternatively, “that old dog won’t hunt,” originated in the late 1800s.

Weigh in! What old-time phrases do you find yourself using? Send us an email at digitalcontentradio@bonneville.com and we’ll find out where it came from. 

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Where did those old-time phrases that we use today come from?