I have this friend who is known for his intelligence and his wit. He’s a linguaphile, and loves nothing more than to ‘educate’ the plebs on just where a particular phrase, word or saying came from.
Of course in many cases there’s no way to verify his stories, most of which come from a time he affectionately refers to as BG or Before Google. But that doesn’t stop us loving them and it certainly won’t stop us sharing them.
Here are our favourite “You Won’t Believe Where It Comes From” tales, for your education and entertainment.
Back when sailors were real men and they ploughed the open seas, both naval and merchant vessels were usually armed with cannons for defence and attack. These cannons were mounted on wheeled trucks so that they could be run in for loading and then out again for firing. They were massive and very heavy, and when not being used they were tied down with strong ropes.
Of course, in rough weather these ties were known to fail now and again, which left about two tonnes of cannon flying around the deck as the ship rolled in the swell. Pretty scary stuff. As a result of this, anybody (or thing) that has the potential to cause hefty or random destruction without restraint is usually referred to as a loose cannon.
Station Wagon & Paddy Wagon
These two are connected, so we’ll tell them all at once. In the years following WW1 Americans realised that it would be great to have a taxi that made it easier for people to get to and from the train station with their baggage. What evolved out of this was a vehicle with a straight roof and open sides, a few rows of seats and space at the back for luggage. Thanks to it’s purpose, they called it a station wagon.
Then, during the massive Irish settlement of America the name evolved a little more. It started with problematic unemployment rates that saw many Irish males join up in the police force. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of Patricks, or Paddys, in their ranks. When the NYPD bought a few station wagons to help in getting a handle on civil unrest, they found it most effective to fill them with baton wielding Irishmen. The public forever on called the police cars Paddy Wagons.
Hookers, or ladies of the night, have been a part of the seedier side of our culture for years. But just where did the moniker come from? Well way back in the day in Holland if you believe the stories. It was the harbour of Rotterdam, particularly the northern side which was known as “Hoek van Holland” or the “Corner of Holland”.
To English sailors who frequented the area, it was known quite affectionately as The Hook, and the women… well you get the idea.
The seaside trading village of Sandwich is located in Kent, in the very south of England. It seems an unlikely place for the origination of a term that today is known throughout the world. If you believe my friend, it was named after John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. Not really much of an upstanding man, he was famed for being a gambler and womaniser. During the mid-18th century he was particularly fond of playing cards at his local pub, and hated to miss a game or an opportunity.
So, to avoid having to leave the card table to eat, or leave himself disadvantaged by playing one-handed while holding a fork, he began to request that his greasy meat be delivered to the table between two slabs of bread. This stopped him getting his hands dirty, and allowed the cards to continue. Others followed suit by requesting the “same as Sandwich”, which over time became shortened to simply a “sandwich”.
It wasn’t always as easy as it is now to prove that someone was dead. In fact, as the scratch marks on the inside of some coffins shows, they were wrong more often than you’d think. So, in order to avoid sending folks into the grave while still breathing some genius decided to try something new.
He tied a string around the wrist of the (apparent) deceased, ran it through a hole drilled in the coffin and attached it to a bell at the top. A watcher was then given the graveyard shift to listen for the sound of a mistaken burial so they could be saved by the bell. Often after rejoining society they caused quite a shock among people who thought they were deceased, leading to the coining of the term dead ringer. In modern times the term is applied to an unusually strong resemblance as opposed to a resurrection, as our ability to judge death has much improved.
If there’s one thing that soldiers love to do it’s refer to their enemies in a way that displays both affection and insult. Some suggest it makes the entire concept of war easier to stomach. In the first half of the 20th century, the main people at war were the Poms and the Germans. The Poms were in the habit of calling German soldiers “Jerry”, a nickname that was both a corruption of ‘German’ as well as a slang term for a chamberpot.
Although they had great nicknames, one thing the Poms did not have were great petrol storage containers. The design was an infamous 4-gallon tin that almost always ruptured when dropped. The Germans however had a much improved design, and the Poms took every opportunity to capture them as the spoils of war. It’s no surprise then that they called them Jerry Cans, as we do to this day.
Would you believe me if I told you that the term cocktail actually didn’t come from a sassy independent woman at all, but the stewards of naval captains. Back in the sailing days the Captain of a ship had the privilege of an impressive store of goods and beverages for his travels, including small kegs of various liquors.
The kegs were tapped on the side by a device that was known as a ‘stopcock’ for it’s shape and emptied almost all of the way by the Captain. However, he didn’t drink what remained in the bottom of the cock, which was known as the ‘tailings’ as it often contained wood shavings and wasn’t suitable for a gent.
The guy who did get to drink it was the Captain’s Steward. Known for not being too particular about the loose they got their hands on, the stewards strained all the mixed tailings from the cocks into one single container. So was born the cocktail.