I Know That Expression!

May 1, 2018


One of the best and most thoughtful gifts I ever received was from a coworker who knew I was a logophile -- a lover of words. Published in 1997 and titled Word and Phrase Origins, the book’s  description says it “contains more than 9,000 entries that trace the sometimes bizarre, always fascinating origins of words and phrases  from A to Zzz.”


In this space, I will occasionally share some of my favorite entries from this most wonderful of books. Here are a few that begin with the letter A:


Aboveboard. Meaning honest, the expression was first recorded in the late 16th century and derives from card-playing, in which cheating is much more difficult and honesty more likely if all the card hands are kept above the board (table).


Ace up one’s sleeve. Another expression related to card games, an ace up one’s sleeve originates from crooked gamblers in the wild West  hiding aces in their sleeves and slipping them into their hands. Although no longer a common way to cheat at cards, the expression lives on as a way to describe any hidden, tricky advantage.


Across the board. Around 1935, racetrack tickets naming a horse to win, place, or show (come in first, second, or third) began to be called across-the-board bets. The term soon began to be used outside the racetrack to mean comprehensive and all-inclusive.


All washed up. Dating back to the early 1920s, the expression all washed up came from the notion of washing hands after finishing a job. Its meaning turned negative over the years, and is now used to describe anything or anyone that has failed or become obsolete.


Armed to the teeth. Picture a pirate swinging aboard a ship, one hand on a rope and the other holding a pistol, with a knife clamped between his teeth. That image is the origin of this expression, which likely originated in the first half the 1800s. Its usage today is no longer specific to weapons, and means equipped or prepared to an extreme degree.


A note about the author: Word and Phrase Origins was written by Robert Hendrickson, now 84 years old and the author of more than 25 other books, including American Literary Anecdotes, New York Tawk, and (next up on my reading list) More Cunning than Man: A Social History of Rats and Men.


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