Most people know that the saying, “Fifteen minutes of fame” originated with Andy Warhol. The expression was first used when a catalog of an exhibition of Warhol’s work was published in 1968, In it, Warhol discussed the nature of celebrity and wrote, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” The phrase caught on and was shorted to “fifteen minutes of fame.”
It is interesting to research the origin of common expressions. Some expressions are so ingrained in our language that we don’t give them much thought.
After being out the night before, celebrating their birthdays, my adult son and his friend debated the practice of having a “hair of the dog” and it’s efficacy or lack thereof.
“Where did that expression ever come from?” his friend asked.
In this world of SmartPhones and the internet, they found their answer in a flash. It comes from ancient Rome where similia similibus curantura was common medical practice. Back then, if one was bitten by a rabid dog (or even an uninfected dog), treatment was putting a hair from that dog onto the wound and bandaging it up. The thinking was, that the very thing that caused the illness could cure the illness. The practice of the dog hair on a bite wound was in use for nearly 200 years before it was called into question.
In time, the popular saying came to mean taking an alcoholic drink in the morning cures a hangover.
What adages interest you? Here are a few of my favorites:
“I’m on cloud nine.” This expression means that a person is extremely happy. The U.S. Weather Bureau is responsible for this one. Clouds are classified by the Bureau into nine types. Cloud #9 is cumulonimbus, a cloud that becomes very large and high.
“Pass the buck” Meaning to blame someone else, “passing the buck” originated as a poker phrase. The “buck” was the token passed to the next person up to deal the cards.
Originally, the buck was a buckhorn knife. The handle of the knife was made from the horn of a male deer or “buck.” The phrase was written down by Mark Twain in 1872, the earliest recorded version.
“Sleep tight.” There are a couple of theories of origin for this one. The first explanation I ever heard was that it was a nautical phrase. Since sailors slept in hammocks, they tightened the ropes at night. Thus, “sleep tight.”
Another theory is that “tight” is old English for soundly, properly, efficiently. Personally, I like the sailors’ version better.
“Snug as a bug in a rug.” It is hard to pin down this expression, but it can be broken down word by word. The origins may not have anything to do with bugs or rugs. The expression means to sleep comfortably and soundly and is thought to be a whimsical adage from the 18th century. “Snug” can be traced back to the 16th century when it meant a parlor inside of an inn or pub. This form of “snug” is still used in Irish pubs where small walled off areas provide privacy for couples and small groups.
According to several sources, “snugge” meant “neat, trim, well-prepared” until 1630 when John Lane used the word “snugginge” to mean comfortable. “Bugge” meant ghost or ghoul. In 1642, Daniel Rogers used the word “bugge” to mean insect.
It is believed that the expression “Snug as a bug in a rug” was in full use in 1769, but rugs as we know them were not around. At the time, a “rug” was a thick woolen cover for a bed–basically, a blanket.
So, the origins of “snug as a bug in a rug” could actually translate as “well-prepared as a ghost in a blanket.”
Benjamin Franklin is usually credited with the adage. However, evidence shows that the expression was around long before Poor Richard’s Almanac. Benjamin Franklin used it as a epitaph in 1772 for a pet squirrel named Skug. “Here Skug lies snug as a bug in a rug.”
In 1769, a Shakespeare festival advertisement in the Stratford Jubilee printed, “If she has the mopus’s, I’ll have her, as snug as a bug in a rug.”
Many adages are from the Bible. Some are verbatim while others are based on words or stories in the Bible. These include:
- An apple of one’s eye (Psalms 17:8)
- To the bitter end (Proverbs 5:4)
- By the skin of your teeth (Job 19:20)
- Cast the first stone (John 8:7)
- The eleventh hour (Matthew 20)
- An eye for an eye (Exodus 21:24)
- Kiss of death (based on Judas’ kiss in Gethsemane)
- Old as Methuselah
- Pride goes before faith (Proverbs 16:18)
- Wash one’s hands of it (based on Pilate’s washing of his hands)
- Wolf in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15)
Can you think of others?
Some adages are ancient while others are fairly new. It is fascinating to look at our language and its roots, contemplating how we, as writers, create our stories. Who knows? A sentence you write may become the next popular adage.
Write your list of adages in “comments” below.