You, me and business

Published on: April 27, 2017

Where did that saying come from?


CEO, SCC Chamber

Dana Dittmar

The other day, (okay, every day) I was listening to our local radio station, Sun Radio 96.3 FM. It was a Friday, and station owner Peter Swartz was throwing out a trivia question on the air. The question was, “Where did the phrase ‘leave no stone unturned’ come from?” That got me thinking.

There are so many phrases and things we say we have heard our whole lives. We still say them today even though we have no idea where they came from. Some we have mutated into words that were not the original.

For instance, how many times have you used the expression, “God willing and the creek don’t rise”?  When this phrase was first coined, the speaker wasn’t referring to a body of water. They were referring to the Cree Indian Nation. It was written by Benjamin Hawkins in a response to the president’s request for him to return from a visit in the deep South to Washington. Hawkins was said to write, “I’ll be there God willing and the Cree don’t rise.” The word “Cree” was capitalized meaning he was worried about a revolt instead of too much rain.

What about the expression, “It’ll cost you an arm and a leg”?  When George Washington was posing for his official portrait, the artist discussed the pose with him.  Did you ever notice how often George was painted either as a head shot or behind a desk? Or with one arm behind his back? That’s because artists didn’t charge by how many people were painted, but by how many limbs had to be included?  Painting limbs cost more, hence if you wanted a full-body portrait, it would cost you an extra arm and a leg.

While this isn’t a verbal expression, we all know what is meant when someone extends a middle finger in your direction.  But where did that gesture come from? In olden war days, the most important thing to an archer was his middle finger, which allowed him to pull the string far enough to send an arrow deep beyond the enemy line.

If an enemy was captured, their middle finger was often chopped off.But if the archers were successful, they would show a gesture of victory as they left the battlefield of waving their important fingers to the losing side, reminding them they were still dangerous and powerful.

Here’s one my Mother used to use all the time: “mind your p’s and q’s.”  Not knowing what that meant, I looked it up. It seems when most of us were spending our evenings in the local tavern (wait, aren’t we still doing that?) the bar wench’s job was to keep the ale flowing to the customers. But there were no computer registers back then to help keep up with a customer’s tab, so the girls were asked to mind their p’s and q’s, meaning pints and quarts.

And finally, in honor of Fran Fabbro, there is this story of origin. In the late 1700s, many houses consisted of a large room with only one chair. Without a table, there was usually a long board attached to the wall that folded down to hold food when company was over. Most guests sat on the floor while someone of stature (either the head of household or a special guest) was given the only chair. They became known as the chair man, or the chairman of the board. (Fabbro is chair of the board of the chamber this year, hence the dedication to her.)

Kinda makes you think, huh? Now where did the expression “Enough blue sky to make a Dutchman a pair of britches” come from?