Idiom Origins


pig baseballIt’s occurred to me recently that idioms must be one of the most confusing areas of learning languages. This is never more evident than when grading second language exams, because students screw them up all the time. Common mistakes include: it’s been raining cats and frogs all day, he’s a pork-fisted oaf, and he’ll fight at the drop of a shirt.

Fortunately I had Ouzo to help me grade. As I tried to award points for creativity and unintentional humor, I thought about where these idioms came from. And then, as more Ouzo seemed appropriate, I felt that as a language teacher, I should post about the origins of these idioms.

Now, with no time to research and an awful lot of Ouzo, I relied more on my own intuitive powers of linguistic prowess.

A person who does something ham-fisted does it like a goon with no finesse. Where does this come from?

Well, as you surely know ham comes from a pig and pigs are hideous animals that spend their time rooting through mud and shit. But did you also know that pigs have very poor hand-eye coordination? In a study done by the University of Arkansas, scientists threw baseballs at several farm animals in order to ascertain which were the most coordinated.

This experiment led to many fascinating findings. It found that horses were essentially the shortstop of the barnyard, as they are soft-handed and have phenomenal ball handling skills. Cows were the second best, oddly, seeming to handle grounders with a pure terror that led to good ball play. Chickens and ducks were found to be poor athletes and not team players, as can be expected.

But nobody undershone the pig. Pigs are so bad at baseball that the scientists immediately slaughtered them to put them out of their embarrassment. Later that day, while eating an omelet and a side of ham, one of the scientists remarked that pigs made better ham than ball handlers. Once they started drinking you can guess how they started playing with the language there – ham, handlers, soon you arrive at ham-fisted. So a ham-fisted person plays baseball like a pig. Conversely, if you are horse-handed, your fingers are as nimble as a surgeon’s.

We all know that when it’s raining cats and dogs it is raining very hard. But where in the world does this idiom come from?

As anyone knows, cats were major bigwigs back in Ancient Egypt. But what you might not know is that dogs were their sworn handmaidens. Have you ever seen a hieroglyph of a dog serving a cat cheese and bread?

Now, this relationship obviously led to animosity that was not aided at all by the cats’ naturally antagonistic personalities. Cats would torture dogs by standing on the roofs above them and spitting on their heads as they swept up after their cat orgies. The tension grew and grew until finally erupting into the recently discovered Feline Canine War of 9200 BC.

While there was no clear victor in this war, it did lead to a mutual respect. Cats’ arrogance was taken down a notch because they found that dogs were stronger, faster, and gave great backrubs. Dogs realized that cats were far better at climbing trees and stealing food stores from sealed sarcophagi.

Thus, they held a truce and decided that humans were the real enemy. This was tricky – animals can’t just wage a war on people and expect to keep getting fed. So together they invented the method of exacting punishment via passive aggression. From then on whenever dogs and cats wanted to get back at humans, they climbed up on houses and spit on their owners’ heads. At these times the humans would bemoan their bad luck and say things like, “Oy, Ramses, don’t leave the house yet, it’s spitting cats and dogs again.”

This eventually changed to it’s raining cats and dogs.

When someone does something at the drop of a hat, they do it immediately, with no hesitation. Surely you can imagine many scenarios which might lead to this idiom. Perhaps it involves medieval contests when a dropped hat would start a duel of some sort. Or perhaps it’s about drag racing – someone drops a hat and you immediately hit the gas.

Wrong.

The origins of this expression are rooted in Ancient Inuit tradition. As you know, the Inuit have lots and lots of words for snow, whales, and misery. They also live in freezing northern locales where they learned to live in extremely uninhabitable terrain and unforgiving climates. Their days are filled with hunting seal and whales, building igloos and, presumably, wondering just what deity they pissed off so much that they were banished to this frozen hell hole.

But that’s about all there is to do. And for that reason, the Inuit had to come up with games to pass the time.
It was at this time, about a thousand years ago, when the Inuit also invented the fedora. Who knows exactly how it happened, but researchers believe it was made of seal blubber and ice. Anyway, one of the many games they came up with was to put a fedora on a polar bear and then let it chase them around.

Of course they realized very quickly that this activity riled up polar bears to a dangerous degree, as being spontaneously hatted would do to anyone. They simultaneously realized that their igloos were not as sturdy as they had once thought, it was only that they had never had to keep out an irate, fedora-wearing polar bear. Nevertheless, a new game had been born: run at the drop of a hat.

So there you have it, folks. I hope that you feel a little smarter and wiser. If we have learned something today it’s to not trust cats and never put a fedora on a polar bear. Oh yeah, and the Phillies need to pick up a couple of horses in the offseason.

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