One night our son Brandon asked about the origin of ‘a needle in a haystack’ and also wondered why we feel happy on ‘cloud nine’ rather than on seven or three. He reminded me it’s been a long while since FFF posted a list of idioms and proverbs, so I found the answers to his questions and more:
- A needle in a haystack means something very small amidst something very big. In ancient times humans used needles made of bone or wood that look similar to hay, making them difficult to find in haystacks.
- Cloud nine. The most plausible origin of this saying is its relation to the Cumulonimbus cloud, which was assigned the number nine in the 1896 edition of the International Cloud Atlas. This highest reaching cloud rises up to 10 km into the sky. Being on it means we’re metaphorically ‘on top of the world’ — i.e. blissfully happy.
- Read the riot act. Upset parents might threaten to ‘read the riot act’ — issue a stern warning — to rowdy children. Instituted in 1714, the Riot Act gave the British government the authority to deem groups of 12 or more a threat to the peace. A public official would read aloud a portion of the Act, ordering people to disperse. Anyone remaining after an hour was subject to arrest or forceful removal.
- Turn over a new leaf. The pages of a book were referred to as leaves in the 16th century. The allusion to turning over to a blank page and starting over means to put our past behind and begin anew.
- Mind your own beeswax. This saying derives from the smallpox epidemic of the 18th century. Many people died from the disease; survivors often had scars and holes on their faces and bodies, which women filled with beeswax. A lady didn’t want to discuss her exposed scars when warm weather melted the beeswax. If anyone came too close, she would say stop looking at me and mind your own beeswax.
- Across the board is something that applies to everyone in an organization, system or society. The phrase refers to a horse racing bet in which equal amounts are wagered on the same horse to win, place and show.
- Like a hole in the head relates to being shot. If a bullet penetrates your head it leaves a hole. No one wants a hole in the head!
- Rack one’s brain. A rack was an instrument of torture consisting of a platform on which victims were stretched and their wrists and ankles tied to the rollers. The frustration in trying to remember something is likened to the torture of racking someone.
- White elephant. Once considered sacred creatures in Thailand, white elephants graced the national flag until 1917. Yet they also represented a subtle form of punishment. If an underling or rival angered a Siamese king, he might present the unfortunate man with the ostensible reward of a white elephant. The expense of caring for one often drove the recipient to financial ruin. The term now refers to any burdensome possession. (Think of Olympic Stadium, the ‘Big O’ — owe — in Montreal.)
- A taste of your own medicine. In one of Aesop’s fables, a swindler sells fake medicine, claiming it cures all maladies. When he later falls ill, people give him his own medicine — which he knows will not cure him. The phrase retains its negative origin: to mistreat a person as he or she mistreated you.
- In a nutshell was used literally. Around the 1st century AD, Cicero saw a copy of Homer’s famous poem, The Iliad, written in miniature form on a parchment that fit into the shell of a walnut. The idiom now means reducing something large to simple and brief.
- A chip on your shoulder implies carrying a grudge. Originating in the US in the 1800s, the phrase alludes to a practice in which men looking for a physical fight would place a chip of wood on their shoulders and challenge others to knock it off.
That’s all she wrote — for now! (An oft cited origin is the succinct ‘Dear John’ letter written by a woman during WWII to end her relationship with a serviceman.) •