How we got “sacked”

Yes, getting sacked does originally involve bags. 

Just ten days into his new role as White House Communications Director, Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci was sacked, as a number of British headlines having been putting his firing while General John Kelly takes over as Trump’s Chief of Staff.

Where does this expression, getting sacked, come from?

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You’re fired! (Pixabay)

Continue reading “How we got “sacked””

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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.

9781612436685-frontcover
(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.

Continue reading “Review: Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red by Andrew Thompson”

Review: Sports Talk by Colin McNairn

You don’t really have a choice over whether or not you like sports if you speak English. All bets are off, bad break, curveball, down to the wire, get the ball rolling, grandstanding, level playing field, take the bait, track record—expressions taken from sports are everywhere and everyday in English, so much so that we forget many of these clichés, idioms, and tropes even come from sports in the first place.

Take at the drop of a hat, or “without delay or good reason.” According to Colin McNairn in his new book, Sports Talk: How It Has Penetrated Our Everyday Language (FriesenPress, 2017):

The hat in the expression is likely of the kind that was frequently used, back in the 19th century, to signal the start of a race, a fight or other competition. The person charged with getting the contest started would, typically, doff his hat, hold it at arms-length, and then suddenly lower the straightened arm, hat in hand, in a downward sweeping motion, which would signal the official start.

Or did you realize that down to the wire, or “until the last possible moment,” comes from horse-racing? McNairn explains that the wire here refers to ones “strung above the finish line of North American racecourses so that, in a close race, it was easier for the track judge to determine which horse finished first.”

In Sports Talk, McNairn covers, blow-by-blow, a whopping 650 expressions derived from over 35 sports sports ranging from football to frisbee, with some history, trivia, anecdotes, and quotes on the sidelines. The author—whose first book, In A Manner of Speaking, I also reviewed—kindly sent me a copy.

Continue reading “Review: Sports Talk by Colin McNairn”

Turkey (repost)

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m busy giving thanks with some family visiting Ireland from the states. So, I thought I would dish up this post from the archives on the holiday’s main attraction: the origin of “turkey.”

It turns out the bird and the country don’t just make for junior high geography jokes or World War I mnemonics. They’re actually connected–dare I say–at the thigh. Well, sort of.

Turkey

Originally, turkey–or turkey-cock (attested in 1541) and turkey-hen, back when our intimacy with where our food comes from necessitated such distinctions–referred to the guinea fowl, a bird native to sub-Saharan Africa.

The guinea fowl (or guineafowl), courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Index Open.

According to some historians, these African guinea fowl made their way into Europe during the Middle Ages through the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of North Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. So-called “turkey merchants” traded the birds and other goods and wares.

In the early 16th-century, Spanish conquistadors imported into Europe what we now think of as the turkey, domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico as early as 800 BC, through the Turkish-dominated Mediterranean, whereupon English-speaking peoples misidentified this bird with the African guinea fowl. (Apparently, corn was also known as turkey corn or turkey wheat due to the same Turkey-by-way-of-Spain-by-way-of-the-New-World channel.) The English name for the American bird stuck, even after the Portuguese brought back–and correctly distinguished from its distant American cousin–guinea fowl from West Africa. Cookbooks from the late 1500s and early 1600s provide evidence that the turkey was already a centerpiece at English feasts, including Christmas.  As for why we came to eat turkey for Christmas and Thanksgiving, Slate offers a digestible bit of food anthropology here.

The Ancient Greeks called the guinea fowl μελεαγρίς, apparently a reference to the Meliagrides, sisters of the Argonaut Meleager, leader of the famed Calydonian boar hunt. Upon Meleager’s tragic death, his sisters were changed into guinea hens. Father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus used the name to classify the genus of the North American bird (Meleagris gallopavo), while the name also identifies a common species of the African guinea fowl (Numida meleagris).

Talking turkey

As for the Turkish? They call the bird hindi. It means “Indian,” and is probably from the French poulet d’inde, or “chicken from India.” Lest we forget, those European explorers–um, conquerors and colonists–did think the New World was Asia. Hence, the West Indies. Hindi and Indian? Yes, they are related. 

And as for TurkeyTurkey is named for the Turks. Romans in the Middle Ages called it Turcus and the Greeks, Tourkos. These come from the Persian national name turk, which folklore glosses as “strength,” but can mean “beautiful youth,” “barbarian,” or “robber.” There is an early Chinese word, tu-kin, referring to a people in the mountains of east-central Asia, who may be connected to ancient ancestors of the Turks.

None of this may be turkey shoot, except for cold turkeyCold turkey–suddenly and completely withdrawing from drugs, originally heroin (and later chocolate), including the intense symptoms therein–is attested in 1910, 1921, or 1936, depending on your source. Thanksgiving leftovers testify that cold turkey requires very little work, thus the original sense of “without preparation.” A cold shoulder (of mutton) is related, “considered a poor man’s dish and thus, perhaps, something one would set out for an unwanted guest with deliberate intention to convey displeasure,” the Online Etymology Dictionary delightfully observes. But let’s not leave our Canadian friends out, where Parson notes cold turkey refers to door-to-door selling or salesmen, perhaps for the same low-prep reasons. 

As for “talking turkey,” Parson defines it as talking “business” or “sense,” with turkey standing for “the substantial and succulent part of a (Christmas) dinner.”

Oh, and that thing dangling from the turkey’s neck? That’s called a wattle. It’s a fleshy caruncle. Birds (and other animals) also have dewlaps and snoods. Apparently, when we named the anatomy of birds, Linnaeus left the room and Dr. Suess took his place. Folds of skin: bon appetit, right?

Whatever’s on your table and whatever you are celebrating this week, enjoy your holiday, give thanks, be safe, and, by all means, avoid fleshy caruncles.

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6 political expressions that come from sports and gaming

In the run-up to tonight’s high-stakes showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, some polls are showing that the two candidates are locked in a virtual dead heat. And as the two are set to square off, many want the media to raise the bar of expectations for Trump. The language of politics is no stranger to sports metaphors, but it’s easy to forget that these six terms, near clichés at this point in the campaign, started out as sporting or gaming expressions:

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Now that’ll win a high-stakes showdown. “Poker hand,” by Steve Gray, courtesy of freeimages.com.

1. Run-up

The original run-up took place in greyhound racing, specifically coursing, where the dogs chase hares. The portion of the race up to the first “turn” or “wrench” of the hare, technical terms in the sport, was called the run-up. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites this in 1834. Runner-up is also a racing term, referring since the 1840s to a dog that came in second place in the final course of a race. Runner-up was soon after extended to other competitions.

2. High-stakes

Since at least the 1920s, the adjective high-stakes concerned gambling, especially a poker game with stakes that were high, or “large.” This use of high dates backs to the 1600s, and characterized gambling stakes (e.g., the stakes were high) since the 1700s. The origin of stake, as something wagered, is unknown, though many have tried to root it in a stake, a “post” on which bettors placed their wager in the form of clothing, jewelry, or the like.

3. Showdown

Showdown took its etymological seat at the poker table in the 1890s: when players show their cards, after all the betting is over, by laying them down face up to see who has the best hand. This showdown became a metaphor for other confrontations by the early 1900s.

4. Dead heat

When horses cross the finish line at the exact same time, often after running neck and neck, they end in a dead heat. Horse racing has been using this term since 1796, according to the OED’s records. Dead, here, is “absolute” or “downright,” a sense reaching back the 1600s and owing to the utter finality of death. A heat is a single race, also dating to the 1600s and presumably named for the burst of exertion therein involved. 

5. Square off

Boxers square off when they take their fighting stances. The OED attests this American usage in 1838. Slightly earlier variants include square at, square up, or simply square. In such a posture, the limbs assume the rough outline of a square, a word which has also described a “strong” or “solid” body since the 1400s.

6. Raise the bar

In the high jump, athletes compete to clear ever higher levels of a horizontal bar. This bar, used in reference to the sport since the mid 1800s, could be raised or lowered, which became an effective metaphor for setting different levels of expectations by the 1970s.

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Why do we “clinch” a nomination?

And then there was one. Ted Cruz and John Kasich have ended their presidential campaigns after Donald Trump trounced them in the Indiana primary. Just over 200 delegates shy of securing it outright, Trump has virtually clinched the Republican party’s nomination for president. But why do we say that: to clinch a nomination?

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A clinched nail. Image used with permission from The English Woodworker

Clinch

Outside of political contests, we often use clinch in sports. Leicester City, for example, recently clinched the Premier League championship. Stateside, a team clinches a spot in the playoffs. In these contexts, clinch means “to make certain.” But as early as the 16th century, we didn’t clinch wins: we clinched nails.

After hammering a nail through a plank, a worker bends back the point to fasten it securely in the wood. This is called clinching, and lends itself easily to metaphor. By the early 1700s, the Oxford English Dictionary evidences clinch as a way to express “to settle decisively” – to wrap it up, drive it home, firm and final, like a clinched nail.

After exchanging blows, boxers clinch when they grapple up close, clasping their gloves. This pugilistic clinch is in use by the mid-1800s. We once clinched our hands and fingers, too, but today, we largely say we clench our fists (and teeth, jaws, and butts). Clinch, word historians note, is actually a variant of this clench. The latter probably evolved out of cling, which is found in Old English; you can see how cling’s sense of “adherence” anticipates the “interlocking” clench. Together, this cluster of clinch, clench, and cling ultimately derive from a Germanic base, with cognates widespread in the language family.

Except for builders, we don’t really associate clinch with nails today. But Donald Trump’s all-but-guaranteed clinching of the nomination does evoke nails for many in the Republican party: Will Donald Trump, #NeverTrump-ers fear, clinch the nails into the coffin of the GOP as we know it?

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Beyond the etymological “pale”

Today, my wife and I are bidding farewell to Southern California to greet our new home: Dublin, Ireland. We’ll actually be staying in Oxford, England first until the Irish government finishes processing our work visas.

(Nope, it’s not the sun, I’m sure you’re wondering: I’m going to miss fish tacos the most. And family, of course.)

So, to mark the occasion, I wanted to take a break from my regular newsy musings to look into the history of a word long associated with my new home – and really only surviving the expression beyond the pale.

Pale

In the English of the late 1300s, a pale was a “stake,” the wooden sort driven into the ground – or impaled into Dracula’s heart. Stakes can make a “fence,” a fence can mark a “boundary,” and a boundary can demarcate a “territory,” as pale all came to name.

Historically, England controlled a number of regions known as the English pale. The earliest pale in the record encompassed modern-day Calais, France; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this to the 1450s. About a century later, the English pale also included southern Scotland – and, most notoriously, the greater Dublin, Ireland area. This territory became known simply as the Pale. (Imperial Russia later had a Pale, too, which confined where Jews could live.)

Many claim beyond the pale referred to the ‘wild’ regions outside of English jurisdiction in Ireland, hence the expression’s meaning of “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” The OED, however, does not actually date the phrase – first attested in “beyond the pale of expedience” – until 1720. This is significantly later than the pale’s Irish reference, making this origin story a rather contemptuous bit of folk etymology.

So, beyond the pale is metaphorical – and has been. In the 1480s, Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, used pale in translation for a professional “domain” or “field.” (Caxton was referencing monks and abbots, it so happens.) We might think of beyond the pale as, originally, “out of one’s area of expertise.”

English ultimately drove pale into its ground from the Latin pālus, a “stake.” The ancient Romans also used a pālus as a wooden sword to practice fighting – and, imitating an enemy soldier, as a post in the ground to practice their fighting on. English derives impale, palisade, and pole from the root. Travail and travel –  appropriately enough, at least for the latter, so we’re hoping – are also related, but those origins are beyond the pale of this post.

Pale, as in pale skin, is not related, though my own complexion will soon lose much of its Southern California sunburn, thankfully, in its new climes.

Now, etymologists think Latin’s pālus is ultimately formed from the verb pangere, “to fix,” as one fixes a pale into the ground. Incredibly, this verb also yields peace, rooted in the sense of a pact fastening two parties together.

“Fastened together”: that, I think, aptly describes my wife and me as we venture into our new pales, so to speak, in a country whose rich linguistic traditions will certainly inspire many a Mashed Radish post ahead.

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How did “lame duck” take flight?

Technically, President Barack Obama is not a “lame duck” until after the election in November. But with a gridlocked Congress, an unprecedented presidential campaign, and a sudden Supreme Court vacancy, pundits, the press, and politicos have been already quacking the fowl phrase a few months into the president’s final year.

There is even an egregiously false “lame duck” clause making the rounds online; citing Article III Section IV of the Constitution, which does not exist, it claims “the President may not nominate a candidate for the Supreme Court if the vacancy shall occur in the year leading up to an election, when the candidate be a ‘lame duck.'” The phrase lame duck did exist when the constitution was drafted, as we’ll see, but many decades passed before we started using in this way.

So, how did the expression lame duck take flight?

Lame duck

It wasn’t politics that first gave wing to the expression lame duck. It was stock brokering – or rather, bad stock brokering.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes lame duck back to 18th-century broker slang for a “defaulter” in the (now) London Stock Exchange. Brokers who cannot pay off their losses, so it goes, are like ducks that can’t walk. Helping to further explain the metaphor, the dictionary cites David Garrick in a prologue to a comedy by Samuel Foote: “Change-Alley bankrupters waddle out lame ducks!” The passage goes on to describe all sorts of colorful terms the papers were apparently using for gamesome folk: “The gaming fools are doves, the knaves are rooks, / Change-Alley bankrupters waddle out lame ducks! But, Ladies, blame not your gaming spouses, / For you, as well as they, have pidgeon-houses!”

This is not the earliest evidence the OED gives for lame duck, though. It first cites a letter written by English scholar and politician Horace Walpole: “Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck, are?” Indeed, the duck is not the only animal in the stock market’s menagerie; stockjobbers have been referring to bears and bulls since the early 1700s. In his letter, Walpole expresses dismay for moneyed interests in conflicts with the Spanish at the time. He goes on to answer his question: “Nay, nor I either; I am only certain they are neither animals nor fowl, but are extremely interested in the new subscription. I don’t believe I apply it right here; but I feel as if I should be a lame duck if the Spaniards take the vessel that has my Altar on board.” (Altar? Walpole famously collected art and historical artifacts, if I reckon correctly. Subscription I assume refers to some sort of financial investment opportunity.)

For all of lame duck’s disability, it definitely winged its way across the pond. The OED finds it in US political contexts as early as a January 1863 edition of the Congressional Globe, deriding the United States Court of Claims: “In no event…could it be greatly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politics.” Lame duck easily jumps from maimed finances to crippled politics.

By the early 1900s, we see lame duck flocking to its current usage, the session after an election before a new office-holder takes their seat. It was used especially of Congress at first. In 1910, the New York Evening Post noted that reporters chattered of the “‘Lame Duck Alley’ …a screened-off corridor in the White House offices, where statesmen who went down in the recent electoral combat may meet.” Ducks, for the good of your name, you should really start avoiding alleyways.

Ratified in 1933, the 20th Amendment to the US Constitution is also known as the Lame Duck Amendment: It ended a president and vice president’s term on January 20 and Congress on January 3, moved up from March 4. This prevents lame ducks from being lamer ducks, shall we say. Also, office-holders just don’t need as much time to get ready for their service as they did centuries back, I imagine.

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A picture from the National Archives of the Joint Resolution ratified as the 20th Amendment. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Lame duck has been used of broken-down ships, commercial enterprises, and persons, more generally. The OED also notes a related expression predating its first citation of lame duck: “to come by the lame post (of news),” to be “behind the times” in the 17th century.

Today, I hear lame duck usually characterizing the powerlessness of a president in a final term. But, in an age when being a politician can be like being a professional fundraiser, a lame duck can reassemble that other national bird: the eagle, for a lame-duck president’s wings aren’t clipped by running for re-election. That is, if your opponents aren’t out hunting.

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Book review: Holy Cow! by Boze Hadleigh

We’ve sighted a lot of different animals in the etymological safari that is the Mashed Radish. We’ve run with horse, talked turkey, reared up like a lion and wriggled like a shrimp with rampant, raised yearlings in old veteran, and raced with huskies in mush. We’ve sported with hawks and cardinals. We’ve traversed entire hemispheres in the native Quechuan habitat of condor and llama. We’ve even walked alongside a stegosaurus in thug.

But animals just don’t run wild in the origin of individual words: They also come in droves throughout the English language, from raining cats and dogs to currying favor. In his new book, Holy Cow! Doggerel, Catnaps, Scapegoats, Foxtrots, and Horse Feathers – Splendid Animal Words and Phrases, author Boze Hadleigh goes whole hog with his veritable menagerie of “the origin stories and the definitions of hundreds (at least!) of animal-related words, phrases, and expressions,” as he writes in his introduction. Skyhorse Publishing, whose In a Manner of Speaking I also recently enjoyed, kindly sent me a copy of Holy Cow! to review.

Perhaps like a zoo arranges its exhibits, Hadleigh organizes his book into five chapters: dogs, cats, horses, other mammals, and non-mammals. Each chapter takes a very comprehensive look at the various – and truly numerous ways – we talk like the animals.

Image from Skyhorse Publishing.

Let’s take dog as an example. Hadleigh serves up the history of hot dog and explains the meaning of hair of the dog and see a man about a dog. He discusses dog in various expressions like dog days or dog tags as well as in various words like dogwatch and doggerel. He looks into dogs in marketing, such as RCA’s Nipper, and dogs in the garden, such as dogwood. Hadleigh also covers many dog-related items, such as curbitchpuppy, and bark. I learned, for example, that harass may be from an Old French verb “to set a dog on” while chow, as in “food,” is related to Chinese expressions for food. According to Hadleigh, hush puppies were so-called due to their use either to quiet hunting dogs or hungry children amid the poverty of the postbellum South.

Passages like the origin of harass or hush puppy represent what I think the text does best. Lousy indeed comes from louse, the singular form of lice. To go whole hog might be come from the option of buying the whole pig, rather than just choice cuts, from the butcher at a discounted price. Canary the bird is named for the Canary Islands, whose Latin name actually describes an island of dogs (think canine). And jaywalker is a curious specimen:

Jays, member of the crow family, usually with blue feathers, thrived along the east coast of what is now the US when European colonists arrived. As more and more arrived, most jays withdrew to the country. By the mid 1700s jay was a nickname for a country bumpkin. Rural visitors to growing cities were often baffled by the traffic, not knowing where or when to cross the street, and sometimes doing so without looking. By the early 20th century a jaywalker was what he or she is now. Today they should really know better.

As this passage illustrates, Hadleigh’s writing is clear and easy to read. For as wide-ranging it is, his content comes in small chunks, making the text one you can easily pick up and put down, as I did at the airport, at a cafe, even at a bar. Again, Holy Cow! reads like going to the zoo: You can admire linguistic creatures great and small while strolling through the chapters at your own pace, taking away an interesting fact or two as you appreciate all the ways animals have populated our language.

I did have questions about some origins and thus wish Hadleigh provided us more information about his sources than just occasionally quoting Mario Pei or the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. A bibliography would also have been not only useful but also appropriate. The text could have marked words or phrases when they are being referred to as such (e.g., italicizing jaywalker in the passage quoted above), a standard practice which makes meaning clearer and the text easier to follow. I also would have appreciated some final remarks.  What did Hadleigh learn about the human animal and its language from gathering up so many animal terms into this ark of a text?

That said, Holy Cow! is a fun read. I found it very entertaining and enjoyable due in part to Hadleigh’s accessible organization and wide-ranging content and in part to the sheer fact that, as he notes in his introduction, “humans have always been drawn to animals.” It’s true. Hadleigh’s admiration for both animals and language comes across clearly in this book, and I think you, too, would enjoy a trip to his linguistic zoo.

HOLY COW! 
By Boze Hadleigh
320 pp. Skyhorse Publishing. US $14.99.

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Book review: In a Manner of Speaking by Colin McNairn

At the Mashed Radish, I like to nibble on etymology, snacking on the origins of words and getting a taste of how they’ve changed over time. So, I was excited to get some bigger linguistic portions, if you will, when I read Colin McNairn’s In a Manner of Speaking: Phrases, Expressions, and Proverbs and How We Use and Misuse Them. The publisher, Skyhorse Publishing, kindly sent me a copy to review. I found the book very tasty and think you will, too.

Image from Skyhorse Publishing.

From higgledy piggledy and a pig in a poke to Bushisms and spoonerisms, In a Manner of Speaking has a big appetite. As McNairn states in his introduction:

This book is unlike most others in the field, for it’s not simply a compilation of expressions or sayings with meanings and their origins. Rather, it spins a narrative that “runs the gamut” of the characteristics of both tools of communication, including their style, their use of various literary devices, including metaphors, similes and other figures of speech, their recurring patterns, their encryption as acronyms and the varieties of images they draw upon–ranging from the world of animals to human anatomy to the food and drink that we consume. The book is also different from its predecessors in that it brings expressions and sayings together “under one roof” and illuminates their similarities and differences.

But McNairn has still more room on his plate: He also looks at how such language–mostly American English, though a good deal of British, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian English, too–is “manipulated in a humorous fashion.”

His menu–if you’ll permit me to continue the metaphor in the spirit of this book–includes 16 chapters (er, courses) which classify and categorize various expressions based on a different feature, theme, or topic that, according to McNairn, underlies their usage.

He starts with rhyming and alliterative expressions (e.g., mumbo jumbodeader than a doornail), whose sound symbolism help give them their power. He moves on to idioms (break a leg) and amusing wordplay involving non-literal language, like such Wellerisms as “I’m dressed to kill,” as the recruit said when he donned his uniform. Next up is illogical expressions whose meanings have been obscured. For instance, the expression happy as a clam makes sense when you learn it was originally as happy as a clam in butter sauce.

McNairn then serves up coded expressions, such as euphemisms (pushing up daisies), acronyms (YOLO), and rhyming slang, such as the famed Cockney variety, all showing off the breadth of the material he draws from. He offers expressions that draw on places (a New York minute), expressions that draw on persons (like the northern English you’ll end up in Dickie’s meadow), expressions involving words whose meanings have evolved (the fell in one fell swoop, say), and expressions that rely on metaphor (walls have ears).

McNairn continues with an insightful chapter on the structure of certain sayings: Once an X, always an X or X is as X does. He proceeds to expressions that compete and contradict one another in the language: The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese. His courses keep coming with a chapter on sayings that originate in or are riffed on commerce (Just Do It) and another on ones that originate in Latin (carpe diem). He closes with chapters based on the body (thumbs up), animals (bell the cat), food (eat crow), and drinks (bottoms up).

As you might have guessed, In a Manner of Speaking scoops up a generous helping of content. And each chapter, moreover, is truly chock full of examples.

Many of his examples are toothy little morsels: Keeping up with the Joneses originates from a 1900s comic strip while the graffito Kilroy was here was popularized during World War II. Sometimes I learned something surprising and new: To call a spade a spade comes from a mistranslation of Greek. Sometimes I had a good chcukle: “Strine” is a term imitating Australian accents, famed from the writings of Afferback Lauder, a pseudonym that sounds like an Australian pronunciation of “alphabetical order.”

McNairn’s sources are delightfully eclectic: the Bible, Shakespeare, limericks, Monthy Python, fortune cookies, popular t-shirts, and the Urban Dictionary are all welcome In a Manner Speaking. The kinds of expressions are eclectic, too: mottos, slogans, proverbs, mock proverbs, dead metaphors, shaggy dog stories, clichés, snowclones, mondegreens, and eggcorns.

How about a taste? Here’s a fun passage from his chapter, “Animal Images”:

Although sucking eggs involved an admirable talent on the part of grandmothers, the demand “go suck eggs” developed as a slang form of derision in North America. That expression comes from the behavior of unwanted henhouse intruders, the skunk and the weasel, who are wont to come out at night “under cover of darkness” and suck out the contents of any eggs they find. At least “that’s what they say,” to add some “weasel words” to the narrative. The stoat, also know as the ermine, behaves in the same fashion as the weasel but, otherwise, the two species are readily distinguishable for, in the words of a punishingly bad joke (repeated here with suitable apologies), “one is weasily recognized and the other is stoatally different.” However, it’s worth noting, while temporarily mired at this low level of humor, that “stoat” and “weasel” do have certain similarities, for there’s an “a” in each and an “n” in neither.

I think this passage illustrates well McNairn’s style. His writing is fun, inviting, and easy to read. His tone is sometimes wry, sometimes zesty. His explanation of technical terms is clear. His organization is associative and well-paced.

However, I did find myself getting distracted by the use of expressions to explain expressions (e.g., “At least ‘that’s what they say'”… above), even if it illustrates just how much we rely on expressions.

(This, too, was ironically illustrated when he explains the literal meaning of expressions. For instance:

Many other similes refer accurately to familiar animal behavior patterns. For example, a strong draw or attraction, particularly to some thing, may be described as being “like bees to honey,” “like moths to a flame,” or “like flies to sugar.” These similes all trade upon the recognized susceptibilities or instincts of the named creatures.

His explanation, at least to me, is obvious to the point of it going without saying, but this only underscores how taken-for-granted expressions are in language.)

Further, I also found myself sometimes losing McNairn’s larger point due to the jumpiness of his narrative.

Speaking of his larger point, I liked how McNairn organizes expressions by type rather than merely listing out randomly interesting ones, but his effort at typology left me hungry for the deeper conclusions he drew about the very patterns he identifies. What do we make of and take away from the fact that some sayings rely on animal behaviors and others on food, that sound symbolism shapes some expressions while syntax forms others Perhaps some concluding remarks may have helped. Or perhaps McNairn is just “cooking that up” in his next book–which I would look forward to reading.

In a Manner of Speaking clearly “takes a big bite out of the apple,” as McNairn might say, and gives “a lot to chew on” and “filled me up.” Dig in.

IN A MANNER OF SPEAKING
By Colin McNairn
288 pp. Skyhorse Publishing. US $14.99.

m ∫ r ∫