I have children. They are at an age where they are beginning to question the world around them, how it works, and why things happen the way they do. Today has been a day full of questions.
“What does ‘beat you soundly’ mean?”
“Why do they call it ‘chicken pox’? Why don’t they call it itchy spots?”
“How do squirrels climb trees?”
What are the answers to these questions? I’m not exactly sure, but as a writer, I know that I can quick as a blink (where did that expression come from?) Google it and have an answer to appease these questions, and so many more, in no time. The only question that remains is how accurate the information is that search engines dig up.
The Etymology of Words & Phrases
For example, today I came across the phrase “on the wagon” and learned that it probably came from actual wagons that were used to transport inebriated people to either prison or the gallows. It was a phrase that comes from a story about William Booth’s daughter (founder of the Salvation Army). So the story goes, she collected drunkards off the street and gathered them into her cart in order to transport them to the Sally Anne for their eternal salvation.
Not to knock the efforts of this charitable organization, but on further investigation, the etymology of this phrase becomes a little sketchy. In actual fact—and with several other websites backing this version up—it seems more likely that the phrase would have originally been “on the water-wagon”. At the beginning of the twentieth century, American streets were largely unpaved. Water wagons were used to keep the dust down. As the temperance movement was quite strong during this time, one who was abstaining from alcohol would lean towards water as their beverage of choice. The phrase “on the water-wagon” referred to someone who was drinking water, not alcohol. It eventually got shortened to “on the wagon”.
While I ponder this phrase and its etymological origins, I sip a drink (alcoholic, I’m afraid) and think about children and their innate curiousity. The English language is a funny thing and the phrases that we have come up with over the years can be obscure, at best. It is no wonder that children have so many questions, especially when they hear sayings like “running like a chicken with its head cut off”. I know where that one comes from, compliments of my grandfather keeping chickens when I was a child.
Why on earth do we compare ourselves to this ghastly postmortem experience though, when in truth we are merely busy?
All I can say is that compliments to reading scads of books, I have a myriad of downright odd sayings that escape me on a regular basis. If I have to continually explain them all to my children, I suspect I will be passing on the old “water-wagon” for the foreseeable future. But if you happen to know where the chicken came from in “chicken” pox, drop me a line and let me know.
Because curiousity killed the cat… (but etymology saved the writer!)