Etymology is an inexact science. Where and when a certain phrase was coined can spark debates that, today, ignite some pretty salty cyber-chatter. Often, determining a term’s true origin story is a combined practice of myth-busting, logic and educated guesswork. Answering the simple question of “what’s in a name?” can take some complicated calculations.
How does something come to be called what’s it’s called? And where do phrases now firmly planted in our lexicon trace their roots? Many names and phrases seem to make little sense: hip hop artists aren’t generally imitating rabbits – let alone younger, trendier (hip) bunnies – and skid row, for all its scumminess, is neither slippery nor neatly arranged. And why out of left field rather than the right one… or center field for that matter?
Some of the following phrases’ histories are fairly ironclad, while others must be pieced together, however tenuously, to get at their likely ancestry.
It’s fairly obvious where many musical genres get their names. Blues, Electronica, Club, and Punk describe their sounds’ emotions, tools, forum, and attitude, respectively.
Others are either unamusing or unsubstantiated. The term Rock & Roll came about when a radio host in Cleveland, Ohio pretty much pulled it out of his behind and, on the other side of the anatomical coin (or rather, coinage), the word “Jazz” may or may not be derived from the word jasm, which officially means energy or pep but unofficially means something else entirely.
By contrast, Hip Hop hits a sweet spot. It was born of a wonderful blend of adoration and confusion.
In 1979, the then-underground genre’s first Billboard Top 40 hit was “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. Consisting of Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien, the group hailed from Englewood, New Jersey but was named for the historically African-American Harlem, New York City neighborhood to which they’d since moved.
The song’s beat – sampled from a loss to history track called “Good Times” by the long since forgotten group Chic – and inventive, crisply delivered lyrics were irrepressible. Following a breakout performance on the dance show Soul Train, the song was an instant hit…
… that no one actually knew by name.
Since the song didn’t prominently feature the title term “rapper’s delight” in its lyrics, folks would go to their local record store and, in lieu of knowing the title of the groundbreaking song they’d heard recently, asked for “that ‘hip hop’ song,” per the track’s opening riff.
In rapid succession, a genre of music had been born and named.
This one is particularly weird and requires some educated assumption.
What we know for certain is that skiddoo is an abbreviated, New York City-ified offshoot of “skedaddle,” which essentially means “scram!” Not the most intimidating word to tell someone to take a hike, but hey, those were kinder, gentler times.
Here’s something else we know for certain: when it opened in 1902, NYC’s Flatiron Building – famous for its distinctive triangular shape, a necessity given the angle at which Broadway intersects with Fifth Avenue – created a wind tunnel that often blew women’s dresses upwards. The gush-worthy gusts occurred so frequently, in fact, that it made national news and prompted police to shoo away peeping perverts.
Sometimes etymology also can be full of hot air. Other times, though, educated assumptions are almost certainly accurate. In this case, it’s a safe bet that these wind tunnels combined with sheer coincidence to help coin a term.
Before there was “86” – another term with NYC roots – another number phrase was at least somewhat popular in turn of the 20th Century America: 23. Like skedaddle, 23 also meant “scram!” It referred to the number of horses allowed in a race; once the 23rd and final horse stepped to the starting gate, it was time to… well… skedaddle.
But policemen couldn’t just tell peepers to “23!” from outside the Flatiron Building, because it also intersects – you guessed it – East 23rd Street. So yelling the number alone would seem confusing at best and crazy at worst – like yelling “Broadway” at someone about to take in a musical at Times Square.
The result was the phrase “23 skiddoo!”, which was probably really “23! Skiddoo!” and then shortened to just plain skiddoo. The newsworthy phenomenon of women’s dresses swooping over their heads – and resulting R-rated voyeurism – made the otherwise regionally limited phrase nationally accessible and a lexicon mainstay.
Skid Row is where you end up if you skiddoo too far from the nice section of town. Warning signs include an unusual number of pawn shops, check-cashing places and sophisticated gents oh-so-discretely concealing their beverage of choice in brown paper bags.
Many people think this term, too, comes from New York City. Before it was essentially sanitized of any and all grit, edge and fun Manhattan had a famous Skid Row along Bowery Street, where the drunk and downtrodden would skulk in bars and brothels in the shadows of then-elevated subway tracks. Other U.S. cities, as well as London’s East End, had notorious skid row slums as well.
However, the term originated not in New York but rather 3,000 miles west, in the Pacific Northwest city of Seattle. Well before birthing grunge music, Microsoft and Starbucks, Seattle had a fantastic natural port welcoming to large ships, an abundance of tall, sturdy trees ideal for the international timber trade…
… and a coastline with one of the most daunting uphill climbs you’ve ever seen. Anyone who has walked down to Puget Sound from city center knows how grueling the return trip can be. This long, steep slope posed an imposing challenge to early visitors looking to capitalize on the area’s untapped timber.
The solution? Chop the trees down and skid them along a row to the waterfront near what is now known as Pioneer Square. The term took a turn for the seedy – it hit the skids, so to speak – when the path became a dividing line of sorts between affluent Seattleites and working-class, often migrant mill workers.
7Snafu… Well, Actually It’s S.N.A.F.U.
War presents uniquely challenging situations that, not surprisingly, give rise to inventive phraseology driven by concepts unrelatable to civilian life.
Some terms are born of aspiration, the sort of “wish you were here” – or, at least, “wish I wasn’t here” – a sentiment that undoubtedly passed through the helmeted heads of every Army grunt and Navy seaman. In 1942, during World War II, songwriter Irving Berlin introduced the phrase “White Christmas” to allied troops fighting to dislodge the Japanese from hellishly hot and humid Pacific islands. Unfortunately, many would never experience snow nor Santa Claus ever again.
But of course, most battle-born terminology has a decidedly more macabre makeup. Another one from World War II is “snafu,” a word which, today, is often incorrectly used interchangeably with “mistake” or “error.”
The word actually pertains to a situation – namely a muddled, confusing or chaotic one. And before it was a word, it was an acronym.
Long story short, acronyms make long stories short. War being hell – and hell brings normal in war – soldiers responding to radioed requests for status updates invented a term to convey that, as usual, death and disaster reigned.
How were things going? Snafu. Or rather S.N.A.F.U.: Situation Normal, All Fucked Up. I mean really, did you think we were roasting marshmallows and carelessly belting out campground songs up here? We’re hunting Nazis for God’s sake.
Since then, the word has become so prolific – and so detached from its foul-mouthed origin – that those using it rarely know it was once an acronym… let alone what the “f” stood for. It even makes appearances in children’s books.
6All the Bells & Whistles
Oddly, a tour of Colonial Williamsburg provides more insight than the Internet on this one.
According to Grammarist, the phrase, which refers to optional features or luxurious extras, has an indistinct origin. The site says it may have become fashionable to describe features on trains, fair instruments or organs in early theaters. Suffice to say, lots of things have bells and whistles on them, exponentially increasing believable etymologies for such a phrase.
But alas, tour guides in wooden clogs, period garb, and triangle hats aren’t paid enough to pull stories out of their nether-regions, and the story they tell seems more plausible. People who can’t afford life’s bells and whistles have no reason to lie about…well… bells and whistles.
Most likely, the phrase originated with something more mundane – something so ordinary, in fact, that it’s familiar to anyone who has ever procreated: the age-old need to pacify a screaming baby.
Especially for wealthy Brits and Colonial-era Americans, baby rattles were both ornate and multifunctional. The pimped-out playthings boasted features like teething coral, silver or gold trimmings and – that’s right – bells and whistles. These two, from 1750s New York, look like they’d get today’s toddlers suspended from preschool.
Any tired parent knows that not all crying fits are created equal. Then as now, a particularly piercing meltdown might very well have taken “all the bells and whistles” no matter how decadent the rattle.
Nothing is more timeless than a toddler’s temper tantrum. So while we can’t say for certain, this explanation behind “bells and whistles” sure sounds right, doesn’t it?
5The Whole Nine Yards
There are two common misunderstandings about this phrase. The first involves an incorrect connection to American football, where 10 yards are needed for a fresh set of plays, or “downs.” So upon hearing the phrase, history-challenged football fans may ponder why the term seems to come up a yard short.
Of course, the phrase has nothing to do with football. In fact, it has nothing to do with distance. One doesn’t go the whole nine yards, but rather gives the whole nine yards.
So where is it from? Once again, etymology being an often-inexact science, we’re left to make educated assumptions via deductive reasoning.
Some have said nine yards refers to the length of cloth needed to make a Scottish kilt. Though reasonable enough at first glance, this claim loses credibility due to the simple fact that the phrase is far more popular in the U.S. than the U.K.
Another theory points to the contents of a standard-sized cement mixer. Given the scarcity of construction-centric idioms in our lexicon, this theory seems less than concrete. Also, it’s worth remembering that someone or something doesn’t take nine yards but rather gives it.
Most likely, this phrase, like so many others, originated in warfare. In World War II air combat, when American pilots had exhausted their ammunition, they had shot off “the whole nine yards” – the approximate length of the bullet belt. The pilots’ effort – and ammo – were spent.
The phrase’s first known printed usage dates to 1950s Kentucky, a timeline that lends credence to its battle-born likelihood. It also seems more fitting to honor men who risked their lives defending freedom than those who made kilts or mixed cement, however noble those occupations are.
Here’s one that isn’t derived from warfare, but rather something else uniquely ugly and human: racism.
Mumbo jumbo derives from the African word Maamajomboo, a masked male dancer who was a part religious figure, a part arbitrator in the Mandingo culture of present-day Ghana. When the Maamajomboo was in costume, he seemed twice the size of an ordinary person – a scare tactic per his role of meting out punishment, which was frequently physical and typically directed at females. Talk about a #MeToo nightmare.
In Western writings, the masked men were first referenced in 1738 by Englishman Francis Moore, who described the figures as chanting, dancing and shrieking when settling a dispute between villagers. Not surprisingly, the process didn’t make much sense to a foreigner who neither spoke the language nor was familiar with local customs. He also botched the name, coining “Mumbo Jumbo” in error.
By 1896, a book of slang terms defined mumbo jumbo as a “grotesque bogy or idol supposedly worshipped in Africa.” While dripping with racial condescension, the term hadn’t yet devolved to its current meaning.
That changed shortly thereafter. A 1923 novel titled Mumbo Jumbo features a protagonist who, per a book reviewer, launched into a “torrent of invective against everything modern, and principally against science, democracy, votes for women and modern art.” How sophisticated!
Since then, the meaning has continued to expand to mean anything nonsensical or confusing, particularly superfluous language. Much of what your mother-in-law says probably qualify, and most of what Congress does certainly count. Additionally, this list may or may not be considered mumbo jumbo.
3Over a Barrel
This phrase made international headlines recently after reports citing a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer – who in turn was citing a former British intelligence officer – claimed Russia has compromising information about President Donald Trump. How large a barrel – and how far over it he must stretch with his diminutive hands – remains to be seen. Given the length and scope of the special investigation into his campaign activities, personal finances and foreign entanglements, however, it seems likely that the barrel could hold enough Diet Cokes to satisfy Mr. Trump’s 12-can-a-day habit for at least a few weeks.
While being over a barrel is an undoubtedly unenviable position, it may actually have well-intending roots. One theory is that the bent-forward position of being over a barrel was ideal for expelling excess fluid from the lungs of someone who’d just nearly drowned. This makes sense considering the barrel’s traditional role in maritime transport; it’s easy to imagine a half-dead sailor being plucked from the ocean deep and slung over a barrel to clear his airways.
A less life-affirming possibility is that the unfortunate barrel-bender is on the verge of receiving some backside-bruising capital punishment. Under this theory, a flog, whip or other welt-inducing weapons would likely prevent someone bent over a barrel from sitting on one anytime soon. Not exactly a barrel of laughs – unless, of course, you’re into that sort of thing.
2Bought the Farm
This is another term whose origins trace to World War II, but a common misconception remains regarding its initial context.
More than anything, the confusion surrounding “bought the farm” derives from taking the term too literally. Many believe, incorrectly, that the phrase pertains to the death insurance money paid to a killed service member’s spouse or family – enough, supposedly, to pay off the mortgage of a farm in what were decidedly more agrarian times.
The problem, though, is that the math simply doesn’t add up. The average death benefit in the 1940s was $3,000, while the median price of a new house – let alone an entire farm – was $4,600. Farms have land, and animals, and barns, and equipment. Then as now, they cost a heck of a lot more than a typical house. Just ask that guy from Green Acres.
Even less credibly, the phrase has been tenuously tied to farmers suing for damages upon a downed fighter plane crashing on his land. WW II was the mother of all conflicts, but the prospect of enough planes crashing into enough farms to spur enough lawsuits and coin a now-common phrase? Sorry, but that explanation smells like manure to me.
The truth is probably far simpler: soldiers’ whimsical wishes to, upon the war’s end, find a secluded spot – like a farm – and settle down. In that likeliest of scenarios, “bought the farm” becomes an eloquent blend of tribute to a fallen comrade and wartime gallows humor. To other soldiers, the idea of a recently departed troop resting in a far better place than their current surroundings was also an understandable coping mechanism.
1Out of Left Field
This phrase, meaning “odd, out of place, or unrelated to the topic at hand,” may have a simple origin… but the more complicated explanations are far more entertaining.
What we know for sure is that “out of left field” is a baseball-based term. Practically speaking, a runner sprinting for home on the diamond-shaped field – in which left field is behind the third (and penultimate) base – wouldn’t be able to see a throw intended to nab him before he scores, since in that common scenario left field is immediately behind the runner. Hence, something unforeseen literally comes out of left field.
OK, now the cooler possibilities.
Babe Ruth is the most famous figure in American sports history. Upon joining the New York Yankees in 1920, Ruth’s regular position was right field (he’d initially been a pitcher as well). His very presence in right field made the seats near left field far less desirable. It’s also likely that fans who’d purchased left field seats eventually migrated over to right field for a closer look at The Babe – out-of-place spectators who’d literally come from left field.
Another literal explanation: Chicago’s old West Side Park, which hosted the Cubs from 1893-1915, had a mental hospital just behind its left field walls. Hell, if Cubs fans at the time had known that, after winning the World Series in 1908, the team’s next championship would be more than a century later, they might very well have moved next door. As it stood, fans intoxicated or otherwise ornery may have been said to have come “out of left field” – i.e. recently released from a nuthouse.
Words are more than tools to communicate in the present. They are also gateways to the past. Many of the names and phrases we use on a routine basis have origins that are anything but routine. And when we take the time to stop and actually think about what we’re saying, we’ll inevitably find intriguing histories behind the most ho-hum of present-day terms.
Etymology isn’t rocket science. There aren’t always exact calculations that lead to an inarguably current answer. Rather, words are not only used to debate but up for debate – they are more subjective, more freewheeling and therefore more fun. Words are fluid, alive. And whether we’re having our way with words, engaging in a war of words or merely playing Words with Friends, the words we use usually have fascinating backstories. If only words could talk.