I can hear it now: Grandfather saying to my dad, “You know what gets my goat, Don…” It seemed a lot of things got my grandfather’s goat. I knew my grandparents didn’t have goats or farm animals or wildlife of any kind. I think I remember a dog and there was a half-wild cat that Grandmother fed, but definitely no goats. I knew it was just an expression, and it sort of tickled me every time I heard him say it because Grandfather would then follow with a rant and my cousins and I would settle down to a game of Chinese Checkers. My dad always seemed to listen and sometimes even added, “I see where you’re coming from, Colonel.”
I’ve sometimes wondered how various phrases came into being, and this was one of them. I decided to look it up. The answer wasn’t very satisfactory. The word “goat” as an expression of anger evidently originated in Sing-Sing prison in the 20s. How it got from prison into general useage wasn’t specified, and I don’t know that I really want to know. but there it is, and it’s something we still use — although come to think of it, I don’t think I have heard that particular expression since Grandfather died.
But while I was on the website, I thought I’d look up some other expressions such as “the whole nine yards.” This one I knew. The ammo on a belt of anti-aircraft guns was nine yards long, so during the war (don’t ask which one), giving someone “the whole nine yards,” meant giving it everything you had. But no. This was amazing — the website said that there are many explanations for this, none of them the same, and all of them hearsay. A few decades ago a young man named Ralph Boston jumped farther than anyone else in a competition: 27 feet one inch. The newspaper said he had gone “the whole nine yards.” Another explanation had something to do with sailing ships, but nothing was definitive, and nothing about ammo. Huh.
Okay, here’s an easy one: “Getting a word in edgewise.” Growing up, one of my best friends was Sharon. Sharon could talk for-ever, something she had picked up from her mother who seemingly never, ever, had to stop for breath. There was no way to get a word in when either of them was speaking. My dad modified the phrase to “getting a word in sledgewise.” To this day, I wonder how anybody could talk for such a long time, seemingly without drawing breath.
Then there’s “gilding the lily.” Wrong! It’s from Shakespeare and the phrase is actually “painting the lily and gilding refined gold.” In fact, a lot of our expressions come from Shakespeare, some of them mangled, but others word-for-word in everyday use. There’s “Eaten me out of house and home,” “Give the devil his due,” “Love is blind,” (I can vouch for that one!), “Elbow room,” “Come full circle,” and at least a dozen others. If you wanna know which plays they come from, you’ll have to look them up yourself.
Many expressions come from the Bible, too. Here are some classics: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” “Am I my brother’s keeper?” “Forbidden fruit” (I think we all know what that’s about), “Cast your bread upon the waters and it shall return to you a hundred fold (but who wants 100 loaves of soggy bread?) and a personal favorite: “Get thee behind me, Satan.” A little story about that: A pastor’s wife came home from shopping and confessed to her husband that she had spent way too much for a dress she fell in love with. She said she only meant to try it on, but when she did, she just knew she had to have it. “Satan tempted me,” she told her husband in an effort to justify herself. “Why didn’t you say, ‘get thee behind me, Satan?'” “I did,” she told him. “And Satan said ‘it fits perfectly in back, too.'” Well, what can you say? Sometimes Satan gets the upper hand.
Yes, the upper hand. It seems that whoever has the upper hand is the dominant one, or, more familiar to kids in the playground is choosing sides. One of the team captains takes a baseball bat, holds it at the bottom and the captain of the other team then places his hand on top and they alternate going up until they get to the top of the bat. Whoever gets to hold the bat at the top has the “upper hand,” and gets first choice for the team.
And finally, the wrap-up phrase of “all that jazz.” There was a movie by that name and jazz is associated with choreographer Bob Fosse, but no definitive explanation of how/where it started. You’re welcome to check it out for yourself and if you find it, do let me know.
In the meantime, have a great day. Keep your sunny-side up, let a smile be your umbrella and don’t let the turkeys get you down.