Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Kick the bucket

Kick the Bucket

This evocative phrase meaning to die is of uncertain etymology. The most likely explanation is that it does not refer to a washing tub or pail, the sense of bucket that most of us are familiar with. Instead, it comes from another sense of bucket meaning a yoke or beam from which something can be hung. The imagery evoked by the phrase is that of an animal being hung up for slaughter, kicking the beam from which it is suspended in its death throes.

This sense of bucket probably comes from the Old French buquet, meaning a tr├ębuchet or balance. The more familiar sense of pail is likely from the Old French buket, meaning a tub or pail.

Shakespeare describes this imagery of a slaughtered animal's death throes in Henry IV, Part 2 (III.ii.283):

Swifter then hee that gibbets on the Brewers Bucket.

The earliest known use of the phrase to kick the bucket is from Grose's 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, where it is glossed as:

To kick the bucket. to die. He kicked the bucket one day; he died one day.

It is often suggested that the term refers to a hanging, where the hanged stands on a pail which is then kicked out from under him. There is no evidence to support this and it probably got its start as speculation attempting to make sense of the phrase long after the sense of bucket meaning beam was forgotten.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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BimboSayings, Words, Word Origins, Idioms, proverbs

Bated Breath

Several people have emailed me asking where bated breath comes from. Bate is a verb dating to the beginning of the14th century meaning to deprive or to lessen; it is a clipped form of abate.

Shakespeare was the first writer we know of to use bated breath, in 1596 in The Merchant of Venice, I.iii.125:

With bated breath, and whispring humblenesse.

Like most of Shakespeare's alleged coinages, this is probably not an invention of the Bard's; his use has simply survived while the writings of earlier and lesser writers have perished.

The term is commonly misspelled as baited breath.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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Balls to the wall

Balls To The Wall

The phrase balls to the wall, meaning an all-out effort, comes from the world of aviation. On an airplane, the handles controlling the throttle and the fuel mixture are often topped with ball-shaped grips, referred to by pilots as (what else?) "balls." Pushing the balls forward, close to the front wall of the cockpit increases the amount of fuel going to the engines and results in the highest possible speed.

The earliest written citation is from 1966-67, appearing in Harvey's Air War:

You know what happened on that first Doomsday Mission (as the boys call a big balls-to-the-wall raid) against Hanoi oil.

Several Korean War-era veterans have written me noting their use of the term during their service. The phrase may very well date to this earlier war, although we have no written evidence for it.

There are two common misconceptions about the phrase. The first is that it is a reference to a part of the male anatomy.

The second is that it arose in railroad work. A speed governor on train engines would have round, metal weights at the end of arms. As the speed increased, the spinning balls would rise--being perpendicular to the walls at maximum speed. But there is no evidence to support this story. No use of the phrase is known to exist prior to the mid-1960s, and all the early cites are from military aviation.

(Source: Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

Saturday, September 02, 2006


From The Mavens' word of the day:

Scum itself has been used for many hundreds of years to refer to offensive, disgusting, or disreputable people, and thus many people take scumbag as an intensification of this scum with the suffix -bag, a frequent element in abusive slang terms (dirtbag; hosebag; sleazebag; etc.), all of which are, however, later than scumbag.

Though most people seem not to realize it now, the original sense of scumbag was 'a condom', based on the slightly earlier, and both rather obvious, scum 'semen' and bag 'a condom'.

People's reaction to scumbag today tend to reflect their awareness of the 'condom' sense, with those who are aware of it finding scumbag significanly more offensive than those who are not. While certainly offensive, scumbag is not in the top tier of the most offensive terms in English. It is more offensive than jerk or creep, but less offensive than, say, asshole. But to publicly call an elected official a scumbag still seems a fairly extreme step, even given the current state of political discourse in America. Note that the New York Times, often squeamish about such matters, did not print the word and used a euphemism instead.

Though most sources claim that both senses, 'condom' and 'disreputable person', date from the late 1960s, the first sense is found in underground literature at least by the 1930s, and the second by 1950.