Blown to Smithereens

My first encounter with this phrase was in Bugs Bunny cartoons as a kid.  It seemed Yosemite Sam was forever hollering, “I’ll blow ya to smithereens!”

I had a pretty good idea it meant “blow you to bits” and I was right.  “Smithereens” means bits and pieces resulting from a violent action, so to blow something, or heaven forbid someone, to smithereens meant to blow it to pieces.

Where did it come from?

Contrary to my recollections, this term didn’t originate with Chuck Jones or Mel Blanc.  It’s actually an Irish word.  “Smithereens” is believed to either be derived from or the source of the word “smidirin” which also means small bits or pieces.  “Smithereens” has appeared in other forms, such as “smiddereens” and “shivereens” in the 19th century and as can be said of many modern words, it took the passing of time to settle into its present form.

The word first appeared in 1829 in print according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, however phrasefinder.com found this reference to it a little earlier:

Francis Plowden, in The History of Ireland, 1801, records a threat made against a Mr. Pounden by a group of Orangemen:

“If you don’t be off directly, by the ghost of William, our deliverer, and by the orange we wear, we will break your carriage in smithereens, and hough your cattle and burn your house.”

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As Easy as Pie

To say something is “as easy as pie” is to say something is simply or very easily done.  Example:

“I aced that test!  It was as easy as pie.”

Where does it come from?

If you’ve ever tried to make a pie, especially if you’ve never done it before, it’s NOT exactly easy.  So why in the world do we say pie is easy?  Interestingly, I’ve found 2 completely different citations regarding the origin of this idiom.

The first citation states “as easy as pie” originated in Australia in the 1920s.  It grew from the term “pie on” or “pie at” which means to be very good at something.  The root is the Maori word “pai” which means “good”.  Hence, if you’re good at something it will be as easy as pie.

The second citation states this idiom was born in 19th century America as a metaphor based on how easy it is to eat a slice of pie because it’s so tasty and pleasant!

Mark Twain was very fond of using the term “pie” to mean pleasant or accommodating: In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884, he wrote:

“You’re always as polite as pie to them.”

“So he took him to his own house, and dressed him up clean and nice,… and was just old pie to him, so to speak.”

The first literary use of what is believed to be the precursor of “as easy as pie” was actually “nice as pie,” as found in Which: Right or Left?, 1855:

“For nearly a week afterwards, the domestics observed significantly to each other, that Miss Isabella was as ‘nice as pie!'”

The earliest example of the actual phrase “as easy as pie” comes from the Rhode Island newspaper The Newport Mercury, June 1887 in a comic story about two New Yorkers down on their luck:

“You see veuever I goes I takes away mit me a silverspoon or a knife or somethings, an’ I gets two or three dollars for them. It’s easy as pie. Vy don’t you try it?”

The second citation for the origin is the most common.

The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back

“The straw that broke the camel’s back” is an idiom also known by its abbreviated version “the last straw.”

This is a reference to a seemingly inconsequential action causing a catastrophic failure.  It means that someone’s limits have been exceeded.  They have reached the last in a line of inexcusable or inappropriate occurrences and can’t take any more.  Example:

“Son, you’re behavior lately has been less than acceptable.  Your grades are going downhill, your attitude has been negative, but the fact you stayed out all night is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Give me the keys to your car.”

Where did it come from?

This phrase originally came from an Arab proverb about a camel who was loaded with straw.  His load grew and grew and grew until finally one last little straw proved too much and caused his back to break.  Its most influential appearance in literature was thanks to Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son published in the 19th century:

“As the last straw breaks the laden camel’s back.”

Other variations of this idiom are:  “the straw that broke the donkey‘s back”, “melon that broke the monkey‘s back”, “feather that broke the camel’s back,” “feather that broke the horses’ back, “the drop that makes the cup run over.”

Kick the Bucket

“Kick the bucket” is a euphemism for having died or the ending of life or usefulness of something.   Two examples:

“Did you hear the news?  Old Charlie Frye finally kicked the bucket.”

“My old computer finally kicked the bucket and I had to get a new one.”

Where did it come from?

As with many old euphemisms and idioms, there has been speculation about more than one root.  This one has three possibilities.  The first is the most unlikely, but conjectures the “bucket” referred to was a bucket stood upon under a hangman’s noose or a suicide noose.  When the bucket was kicked aside, the hanging took place.  Given a bucket isn’t very tall, and so many other options were available, this most likely is a false source.

The second possibility comes from the Catholic custom of holy water buckets.  These were placed at the feet of the deceased so that people who came to pay their respects to the departed could sprinkle the body with holy water.  The association between “kicking the bucket” and death could have been drawn from this, but it’s not known for sure.

For the third and most likely explanation we would have to turn to a second old English meaning of the word “bucket.”  A bucket was a device for balancing, carrying or hanging a load much like a yoke.  It’s thought to come from the French term “trebuchet” meaning balance, or “buque” meaning a yoke.  The term “bucket” is still used in this manner in some parts of Europe.

Many times, animals were hung by their back legs from such a bucket for slaughtering and sometimes in their death throes would kick out against the bucket.  This is where the term “kick the bucket” came from.

Shakespeare uses the term in Henry IV Part II, 1597:

“Swifter then he that gibbets on the Brewers Bucket.”

Here “to gibbet” means “to hang.”

Gruesome, but there you have it.

In Your Face!… Your Face!… Face!

“In your face” is a recent American idiom.  It can have two meanings.  The first, and most common, is a form of derision.  The second means someone or something is brash, arrogant, or extreme.  It also has an even more recent abbreviated off-shoot, “face” or “your face.”

Example of the first:  “Ha!  I scored!  In your face!”

Example of the second:  “That new band was in-your-face loud!”

Example of the latter:  “I think you’re stupid,” Sue said.  “Your face is stupid,” replied Dave.

Where did it come from?

“In your face” was first coined in 1976 in Charles Rosen‘s novel about basketball – A Mile Above the Rim:

‘Stuffed!’ shouted the taller boy. ‘Doobie got himself stuffed!… In yo’ face, Doobie!’

It was originally associated with sports and competition but has since evolved to a broader use for any kind of confrontation and usually used with humor.

Raining Cats and Dogs

“It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” is an idiom meaning it’s raining intensely.

Example:

“I’m afraid the river will flood.  It’s raining cats and dogs out there!”

Where did it come from?

As with many idioms because they’ve been around so long, the definitive origin is lost in time.  There are a few speculations, from Norse gods and witches to cats and dogs being washed from thatched roofs in medieval times.  Here are the theories:

Theory #1Odin, the Norse god of storms, was often pictured with dogs and wolves, which were symbols of wind. Witches, who supposedly rode their brooms during storms, were often pictured with their familiars, black cats.  This became signs of heavy rain for sailors.  Therefore, “raining cats and dogs” may refer to a storm with wind (dogs) and heavy rain (cats).  Unlikely.

Theory #2:  “Raining cats and dogs” may come from the Greek expression cata doxa, which means “contrary to experience or belief.” If it is raining cats and dogs, it’s raining unusually or unbelievably hard.  Unlikely.

Theory #3:   Cats and dogs, supposedly, used to cuddle into thatch roofs during storms and were washed out during heavy rains giving the appearance of “raining cats and dogs.”  Again, unlikely.

Theory #4:  “Cats and dogs” may be an adaptation of the now obsolete word catadupe.  In old English and many of the old languages, catadupe meant a cataract or waterfall.  In Latin, catadupa  was borrowed from the classical Greek κατάδουποι, which referred to  the cataracts of the Nile River.  It’s said because of this rain falling hard like a waterfall was associated with “cats and dogs.”  Still a stretch.

Theory #5 and most likely the true source of “raining cats and dogs” comes from 17th century England.  It wasn’t uncommon to witness dead strays, cats and dogs, being washed along the gutters during heavy rains along with other debris.

In 1653, in a comedy by Richard Brome, The City Wit or The Woman Wears the Breeches, a similar term was coined:

“It shall raine… Dogs and Polecats”.

A polecat is actually a weasel and not a cat at all, but it’s thought this was an early form.

Jonathan Swift’s A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation in 1738 is thought to be the first literary appearance of the phrase as it’s used now:

“I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs”.

Swift had alluded to the streets running with dead cats and dogs during heavy rain a few years earlier, so it’s fair to presume this was where his metaphor came from.  It’s kind of gruesome, but there you have it!

Willy Nilly

“Willy Nilly” is an idiom has two slightly related but different meanings.  When it was first coined, it meant to do something with or against one’s will; or another way of saying “it really doesn’t matter to me.”

The modern and commonly used meaning is to do something in a haphazard manner.

Example:  “This business deal is bound to fall through.  Everything has been done utterly willy nilly.”

It’s derived from “will I nill I or will ye nill ye or will he nill he.”

Where does it come from?

In old English “nill” was the opposite of will; a contraction of ‘ne will’.  “Will” meant the desire to something and “nill” was the desire to avoid it.  It can be translated to:

“be ye willing, be ye unwilling.”

The Latin phrase “nolens volens” also means the same thing, although it’s not known for sure if the English phrase is a direct translation.  There is also a very old saying “hitty missy” which also has the same meaning.

“Willy nilly” first appeared in the Old English text, Aelfric’s Lives of Saints, circa 1000:

“Forean the we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode, wille we, nelle we.”

Shakespeare was also fond of the phrase.  He used it in The Taming of the Shrew, 1596:

Petruchio: [To Katharina]

Thus in plain terms: your father hath consented
That you shall be my wife; your dowry ‘greed on;
And, Will you, nill you, I will marry you.
[I.e. I will marry you, whether you like it or not.]

and again, in Hamlet:

First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes.
[I.e. If a man chooses to drown he enters the water, if he chooses not, he leaves.]

The modern use of “willy nilly” to mean something done haphazardly evolved from the “will-less” aspect of the older meaning.

Break the Ice

“Break the ice” is a common idiom that means to get past formalities to get something accomplished or to reach a relaxed attitude in a socially awkward situation.

Example:  David told a joke to break the ice at the beginning of the meeting.

Where did it come from?

This is another old nautical term; an allusion to forging a path through the ice for other boats to follow.  River cities and seaports depended on ships and boats to transport goods and could become cut off if winter ice became too thick.  Special vessels called “icebreakers” equipped for just the task were effective at breaking a path through the ice so trade could continue.  Hence, breaking the ice was the precursor to getting business accomplished.

The term “break the ice” first appeared in literature in 1579 as an allusion to doing business.  Sir Thomas North wrote in Plutarch’s Lives of the Nobel Grecians and Romanes:

“To be the first to break the Ice of the Enterprize.”

It wasn’t until the 17th century that it was used to apply to socially awkward situations.  Samuel Butler in 1678 wrote in Hudibras:

“The Oratour – At last broke silence, and the Ice.”

The meaning flip flopped during the next 200 years that followed, but now the most allusion is applied to social situations more often than business.

Beat Around the Bush

To “beat around the bush” means to refrain from getting to the point.  It’s commonly paired with another idiom, “cut to the chase.”

Example:  “Are you just going to beat around the bush or are you going to cut to the chase and answer my question?”

Where did it come from?

This phrase comes literally from the hunting practice.  Men were hired to beat the bushes to flush birds or boars so that they could be “cut to the chase” and netted or shot, eliminating the element of surprise for the hunters.  This was particularly advantageous with the case of wild boar, because to meet one by surprise head-on with its sharp tusks was dangerous.  Modern day grouse hunters still use the practice of beating the ground.

The first literary mention of this idiom was in 1440, existing anonymously as the handwritten mediaeval poem, now in the care of Trinity College at Cambridge:  in the mediaeval poem Generydes – A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas, circa 1440:

Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.

This is very possibly one of the oldest non-biblical idioms still used today.

Peek-a-Boo

“Peek-a-boo” (the noun) is a term most commonly associated with the young children’s game of the same name, which dates back to the 1590s.  The game is played by one person covering their face then opening their hands suddenly, revealing their face and saying “peek-a-boo.”  There are several variations of the game, but you get the general picture; the point is the fun and whimsical element of surprise.

“Peek-a-boo” (the adjective) can also mean “see-through”.  This use dates back to the late 1800s.  It was a term commonly associated with sheer or eyelet fabrics.

Where did it come from?

I could find very little about the history of this term.  I did run across a few mentions that the possible origins of the term “peek-a-boo” are derived from the French game of pique-a-beau.  This really wasn’t as much of game as it done to indicate displeasure with one’s beau.  A young lady would cover her face briefly to display her displeasure.  I couldn’t verify this, however.