Review: Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red by Andrew Thompson

Some recent US political events have thrust two interesting idioms in the headlines: waiting for the other shoe to drop and pass the buck. Thinking of a writing post on the expressions, I started doing some research online. Then, much to my pleasure, I remembered I had an entire book dedicated to them: Andrew Thompson’s Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town: The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases (Ulysses Press, 2017). The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review.

(Ulysses Press)

Thompson traces waiting for the other shoe to drop back to urban, industrial America:

Wait for the other shop to drop began with the American manufacturing boom in the late 19th century. In large cities like New York, apartment housing became more common. These dwellings were all built with similar designs, with bedrooms typically located above one another. It was common to be awoken late at night by a neighbor removing their shoes in the apartment above. The person below would often wake when the first shoe dropped on the floor and made a loud bang. Already disturbed, the other person would then wait for the inevitable noise of the other shoe hitting the floor.

As for passing the buck, Thompson finds its roots on the card table—and treats us to some bonus etymologies:

Pass the buck originates from the game of poker. Poker became popular in American during the 18th century and players were always suspicious of any form of bias or cheating. To combat this, the card dealer was frequently rotated during a game. The person who was next in line to deal was given a marker, which was often a knife. The handles of most knives were made of buck’s horn, so the marker became known as a “buck.” When the dealer’s turn was complete, he would pass the buck. Silver dollars were later used as markers, which is probably where the term buck originated to denote a dollar. The US President Harry S. Truman famously displayed a sign on his desk that read “the buck stops here” to indicate that he was willing to take responsibility for governing America.

In Hair of the Dog, Thompson covers an impressive 400 sayings and phrases, thematically grouping them across 15 chapters according to origin (e.g., nautical, sports, money, politics, literature, people). In addition to the derivations, he helpfully provides a brief definition and example for each term, sometimes accompanied by small illustrations. Thompson has also selected a wonderful variety of terms, from spruce up (a shortened version of the name for Prussia) to eat your heart out (which originates in Greek expressions for extreme grief).

I appreciated Thompson’s thoughtful structure and snappy writing, snacking my way through his book a few phrases at a time. But I found myself often scribbling in the margins Is this true?!, including for the two phrases I featured above. Does waiting for the shoe to drop really come from noisy New York shoe-removers? Does passing the buck really start with poker-table buck knives? I visited some of my trusted sources for all things idiomatic online, Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words and the Phrase Finder, and yes, to the best of our knowledge, those do appear to be the real McCoy. And Thompson’s entry for real McCoy showcases another strength of his book: explicitly acknowledging that many the origins of many phrases have conflicting or uncertain origin stories.

The real McCoy is an expression with a number of potential origins which have often been hotly contested. The most cogent theory is that it derives from “Kid McCoy,” the name used by Norman Shelby, the American welterweight boxer who dominated the sport and was at the heigh of his fame in the 1890s. McCoy had many imitators who would use his name in an attempt to capitalize on his popularity. It became so commonplace for Kid McCoy imposters at fairground boxing rings that few people ever believed it was actually him. Years after he had retired, McCoy was in a bar when he was challenged by a drunk who was much larger than he. The drunk’s friends warned him not to fight McCoy, but the drunk didn’t believe it was really him. Provoked to his limit, McCoy knocked the man out with a single blow. When he came to, the drunk admitted, “You’re right, he is the real McCoy.”

The final anecdote, I suspect, is a historical embellishment, but Thompson does some due diligence in his introduction in reminding us of the indeterminacy surrounding phrase origins:

There is often conflicting evidence and more than one possible origin for many phrases. In some cases, the discussion of a single expression could fill half the pages in this book. For these phrases, the most compelling view has been chosen. But that is not to say that there are no other possible explanations; these complicated situations just add weight to how intricate that language really is.

As a person who’s been writing about language topics for popular audiences for a few years now, I understand that the average reader without a background in linguistics and lexicography doesn’t want to be bogged down by textual sources and caveats. But, in spite of his initial cautions, I still would like to have seen Thompson include more background information and evidence for his entries. Many words and phrases truly have extraordinary beginnings, as Thompson regales us with page after page, but given the “complicated situations” of language, I think it’s always important to be wary of folk etymologies—or cock and bull stories, shall we say—by always framing and foregrounding disputed stories as popular, never final, theories. And I do fear, for all his due diligence, a number have crept into his book, like his explanation of cock and bull stories as originating in a rivalry between two English well-trafficked pubs known for outlandish travelers’ tales. That account is possible, but others think it’s more likely that cock and bull stories comes from a French expression taken from fables.

But by and large—a nautical expression, “To sail ‘by’ means to sail facing into the general direction of the wind, while sailing ‘large’…means to have the wind behind the ship. When the wind was constantly changing around, a captain would be required to sail by and large—both with the wind and against it. By doing this, the ship would continue to progress, but its path was not as direct or accurate”—Thompson’s Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red is an info-packed yet fun, light, and easy read for anyone looking for the surprising, entertaining, and often incredible stories behind some of the many colorful yet taken-for-granted expressions that pepper our language. Just be sure to take them with a grain or pinch of salt:

Also said as a “grain” of salt, taken with a pinch of salt owes its origins to ancient Rome. The philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote the story of King Mithridates VI of Pontus in his book Naturalis Historia in AD 77. The King had built up his immunity to poison by regularly ingesting small doses of a poison recipe—two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue, all ground together. Addito salis grano, Pliny recounted, “add a grain of salt,” to make the mixture more palatable and easier to swallow. It is not known when the expression changed to mean what it does today.

By Andrew Thompson
280 pp. Ulysses Press. US $12.95.

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