When I was a kid, my grandmother told my cousin that if she didn’t start behaving she was going to “tie her tail in a knot.” My young cousin looked up, blinked, then replied, “But Grandma, I don’t have a tail!”
She is not alone in wondering why we say phrases that have been handed down to us. Today we are going to explore four phrases that have crossed lips for decades (or in some cases centuries) and how in the world they could have gotten started.
At the Drop of a Hat – Them is Fightin’ Words!
We use the phrase “At the drop of a hat” to indicate that something that done quickly or without delay, often as an overreaction. The exact origin of the phrase isn’t known. Some speculate that it arose from the Old West where the men were in the habit of thrusting their hat downward to signal the beginning of contests…or fights. Alternatively, the Irish may have been the root of this saying as they signaled the beginning of a fight by removing their hat and giving it a downward swoop. Either way, if you saw a gentleman dropping his hat, it was a pretty good cue to get up and get out.
The Bees’ Knees – A Morphing Meaning
The “bees knees” has traveled through the decades with its original phrase in-tact; however its meaning has drastically changed over the years. It can be spotted as early as June of 1797 when a Mrs. Townley Ward wrote in a personal letter, “It cannot be as big as a bee’s knee.” It would be easy to assume that the saying has a connotation of something being very small or an experience not so big as it is made out to be. But wait! 18th century men also used it as a practical joke on new apprentices by sending them to the shops to find non-existing items such as the bees’ knees. The idea even appeared in a comic for an American newspaper where guests at a dinner party sewed buttons onto ice cream and supped on a meal of “bees knees.” This was a trend that the youth of the 1920s enhanced, using the phrase, along with sayings like “the cat’s pajamas” to indicate a situation or person so ideal that they couldn’t possibly exist. The phrase continued to morph until today it refers to a person or item that is excellent.
“Got the morbs.” – The Phrase with all the Feels
This bit of Victorian slang is making a comeback today. We don’t have to guess the meaning much, as the shorter form or “morbid” instantly makes us think of a person in a funk. The Victorians used this to refer to a temporary spell of melancholia or feeling a bit low. This saying may have faded into obscurity except for a man named James Redding Ware included it in his book “Passing English of the Victorian Era which he wrote in 1909. He notes the phrase began in the 1880s when people referred to the feeling of “temporary melancholia.” It is also recorded by a British lexicographer, Susie Dent as “to sit under a cloud of despondency.” So next time you find yourself overcome by sadness, try dramatically declaring to your best friend, “I cannot today for I’ve got the morbs!” Extra points if you throw the back of your hand over your forehead. Try it and see if within five minutes of your friend’s reaction, you still have the morbs. I’ll wager, you won’t.
A Drop in the Bucket – What’s the Use?
This phase came into popular use around the 1300s, though its actual origin can be found in the Bible’s book of Isaiah. Isaiah 40: 15 says “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance.” It cannot be a compliment to any nation to be compared to a drop of water or a speck of dust. The thesaurus groups the phrase with words like “pittance, smidgen, trace.” For example, the four phrases we have explored today are just a drop in the bucket when compared to the many phrases our ancestors have coined, copied, and passed down to us