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The Science Behind Some Popular Phrases

The following is an article from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into the Universe.











Photo: Shenghung Lin [Flickr]

Once in a Blue Moon: A neat description of "not very often," it refers to the second full moon within a month - a rare thing indeed. Full moons happen about every 29.5 days, and since a typical month runs between 30 to 31 days, the likelihood of two in a month is slim. But over the course of a century there'll be 41 months with two full moons, so once in a blue moon really means - if you want to get literal - once every 2.4 years.

Mad as a Hatter: Today we know enough to keep clear of mercury, but hat makers once used it to make the brims of hats. When absorbed through the skin, it could wreak havoc on the nervous system: tremors, fatigue, not to mention behavioral dysfunction - that is, crazy behavior. Just think of Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Raining Cats and Dogs: In 1600s England it was common practice to discard any waste into the streets - even dead household pets. Once it rained so much that the now-deceased Tabbies and Fidos became buoyant and floated along the streets, thus inspiring writer Richard Brome in 1651 to record, "it shall rain dogs and polecats."

Saved by the Bell: Before modern medicine, it was hard to determine if a person was really dead or simply in a really, really deep sleep. As a precaution, the presumed dead were buried with a string that ran from the corpse's finger to a bell. If there was a mistake, the person could twitch the finger and thus be saved from being buried alive.

The Acid Test: Gold Rush miners tested possible gold nuggets in acid. Unlike other metals, gold won't corrode in acid, so if the nugget didn't dissolve it passed the acid test and therefore must be pure gold. If a person passes a figurative acid test, they're telling the truth, as opposed to the literal acid test, which would be quite painful, not to mention corrosive.

In the Limelight: Theater stages used to be illuminated by heating lime (calcium oxide) until it glowed brightly. Lime has a high melting point, and when heated, gives off a brilliant white light. The light was then focused into a spotlight, so if an actor was in the limelight, he was certainly the center of attention (and probably very hot as well.)

Dog Days: The ancient Romans noticed that the Dog Star, Sirius, rose at the same time as the sun on the hottest days of the year, so they made the natural assumption that Sirius in the sky added to the heat of the day. Today it's generally accepted that the "dog days" of summer are July 3 through August 11. But they have nothing to do with Sirius.

Chew the Cud: If you figuratively chew the cud, you're chatting with an acquaintance. If you literally chew the cud, you're regurgitating food from your stomach to be chewed a second time (don't even try it). Cows are ruminants - this means that to properly digest grass to pass through their four-chambered stomachs, they need to rechew it. Consequently, a cow's mouth seems to go nonstop, just like a person who is "chewing the cud."

Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth: In other words, don't be ungrateful when someone gives you something. You can tell a horse's age by looking at its teeth, particularly the incisors, but if someone gave you a horse as a gift, it would be considered rude to examine its teeth. (This would be like looking for the price tag on the present.)

The Bee's Knees: It's 1920s slang for something wonderful - but why would the knees of the Apis mellifera, the common honeybee, be something to be excited bout? Well, when bees find pollen they carry it back to the hive on pollen baskets located on their hind legs near their knees (yes, bees have knees.) The pollen is then used to make honey.

Cold Turkey: To completely abandon an addictive habit is to go cold turkey. As a result, the habit-kicker may experience cold sweats and goose bumps as blood rushes from the surface of the skin to internal organs. That bristling gooseflesh looks like the skin of a plucked goose (which looks quite similar to a plucked turkey). And doesn't it sound better to go cold turkey than to go cold goose?

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


I love "pot calling the kettle black" and "don't cry over spilled milk". Sometimes you have to channel your grandfather to make sense of these little bits of American vernacular phraseologistic-ology.
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I always thought that "saved by the bell" came from boxing. If someone was really taking a beating and the bell rang ending the round, then they were "saved by the bell."

Boxing is "The Sweet Science" so I guess this may be some more science behind the phrase.
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Looks like Behemoth beat me to it, Bees use pollen for food, not to make honey. Nectar is for honey.

Other than that, it's an interesting post!

--TwoDragons (who is still pregnant...)
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I'm suprised "lipstick on a pig" didn't show up. I heard that one for the first time in 2003 when a co-worker was describing a nearby city. Then when Barack "the Rock" Obama used it, it seemed the phrase became much more popular.
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I dont agree with many of these.
-Mad Hatters used lead forms for their hats
-Raining cats and dogs was when they fell through thatch roofs during storms
-Saved by the Bell is a boxing term
-Acid Test was the experimental use of hallucinogens, surviving meant your brain was still intact...
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I know others have already commented on this and I know you got the info from Uncle John, but "saved by the bell" IS a boxing term, first appearing in the latter half of the 19th century. You can find further information at
http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/saved-by-the-bell.html
and at
http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.asp
among others.
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I believe the "Dog Days of Summer" come from the fact that rabies is for more prevalent in the late summer. At least according to the book, "To Kill A Mockingbird."
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Good list. If you understand where different parts of a language came from, it opens up insights about your own culture that you might not have realized.
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" The first appearance of "blue moon" is in a work entitled Rede Me and Be Not Wroth (1528): "Yf they say the mone is blewe/We must believe that it is true." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "if the moon is blue" is equivalent to saying "if the moon were made of green cheese." In other words, it's meant to indicate a patent absurdity.

But you know how things go. Over time the meaning of "once in a blue moon" got watered down. First the expression went from meaning "never" to "once in a long while." Maybe it was that forest fire in 1950.

Today things are even worse. There is a popular conviction, which the media have done much to reinforce, that a blue moon is a second full moon occurring within a calendar month. This occurs every two or three years. So now "once in a blue moon" means "not all that often, but more often than the Olympics." The most recent blue moons occurred in January 1999 and again just two months later in March--a highly unusual circumstance that garnered a lot of attention from the press. "

From Cecil Adams, master of trivia at straightdope.com
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FloatingK, if you find an instance of that phrase in literature pre 1950's the gold rush explanation would win out. Since the gold rush happened before the invention of acid i'd say it's more likely that people in the 60's adopted that phrase.
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The Mad Hatter, even though it sounds odd, wasn't basted on a case of mercurialism. He was based on an eccentric furniture salesmen. I was just reading about mercurialism earlier.

What about "pie in the sky"?

I had a teacher who used that one all of the time.
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@floatingk
I know that the thatched roof explanation is common, but come on, can you even picture a dog getting up in a roof?? They don't climb like cats do.
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Behemoth: Bees use the pollen they collect. They mix it with wax and trace amounts of honey to produce something called "bee bread", which is essentially a high-energy food for the workers and larvae.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bee_bread

--TwoDragons
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re The Bees Knees.

I was told way back when that the phrase was just a joking pronunciation "The Business".

In the UK the phrase "That's the business" is interchangeable with "That's the Bees Knees".
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"dead ringer" is the saying that comes from that people buried with a string attached to a bell thing. as in someone who looks the same as someone else.
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@ashley, I cant say Ive ever seen a tall thatched roof house, and seeing my dogs chase mice and birds, I can totally imagine them up on the roof, especially with all the neighbors crap piled high in the back....
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Hi chaps (and ladies)
A couple of observations on the above comments. I'm English

re cats & dogs
There are no skunks in Britain so 17th C gents wouldn't keep them as pets

re bees knees
I was always told it was an extrapolation of business. Here, when something is 'the business' it is perfect for the job or task.

re dead ringer
a ringer is an imposter. A very old saying but used quite a lot in my youth at greyhound racing where one dog would run trials, get a handicap for a race, then a similar looking dog would be run in it's place. Similar = ringer, dead ringer = almost exactly the same.

So can anyone explain why in the English language, we misuse the words near and nearly??

I nearly won the lottery (I didn't win)
2 aircraft were in a near miss (they missed)
Obama nearly lost (he won)
He nearly scored from that penalty (he didn't score)
Yellowstone hyper multi mega super volcano nearly didn't go off in 2009 (etc)

HNYr from UK
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Thank You! Many of the old sayings I have heard from my childhood. They were said by my elders. Now it is nice to know the meaning behind them
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