Dark Thoughts Afoot in the Deep of the Night

Last night, things came crawling into bed with me in the dark—worries and sadnesses, fear and forebodings. I could not make them leave, not even after my husband slid under the blankets, his warm body usually a barrier to Dark Things.

I tossed and I turned, and finally, after 90 minutes or so, I got up, grabbed my books from the side table, and went downstairs to turn on the lamp, sit in its warm amber light, and read.

I wrapped my legs in the gold knit blanket, but no matter how I snugged and tucked, my feet were freezing.

“I have cold feet,” I thought, and then my thoughts went rabbiting down that hole.

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There wasn’t a commitment I was about to undertake—like a wedding or a parachute jump, for instance—that I was having second thoughts about. That’s what getting cold feet means, of course: to come right up to the time of an event and decide that maybe, in reality, that’s not something I want to do at all.

I went to the computer, and I looked it up.

Bloomsbury.international.com tells me that the origins of ‘having cold feet’ are obscure, but that it may have come from military days. Soldiers, way back in the day, if they were frightened to go into battle, might complain of frozen feet.

But Wikipedia—which you should never, ever use as a source in an academic paper—says that the use is often attributed to Stephen Crane, who penned the term in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. In that novel, Crane writes, “I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.”

But Crane, Wikipedia says, may be getting unearned credit. The site notes that Fritz Reuter used the term in “Seed Time and Harvest,” which was published in 1862. And long before that, scholars say, Ben Jonson used the term in his play Volpone in 1605.

Origins may be lost in the fog of time, but the soldier’s lament makes sense to me.

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And on the subject of feet, how about, I thought, scrabbling around the words at the bottom of the rabbit hole, HOW about, “To put one’s foot in one’s mouth?” That phrase has never made sense to me; it’s all about saying something that embarrasses me and the person to whom I’m speaking. I would have been better off, actually, if my foot had BEEN in my mouth; it would have been harder to talk around it.

Given my history of tact and blundering, there have been many times I’ve wished I was chewing on my toes instead of choking on my words. But it’s certainly a vivid term. I went looking for its origins, and I came away frustrated.

Jon Pennington, on Quora.com, thinks that the phrase morphed from the concept of ‘foot-and-mouth’ disease, a deadly thing that afflicted cattle. Somehow, he says, the term came to mean people who had said something so egregiously embarrassing or offensive that they just couldn’t recover.

There’s a leap in that theory that I can’t make; I keep tumbling into the abyss when I try.

Phrases.org.uk says that an expression for saying something stupid, back in the dawn of the eighteenth century, was “I put my foot in it.” It’s easier to see where that phrase came from; and I bet there was a lot if ‘it’ back in those days to step in. But then the site jumps to the mid-twentieth century, when it says, “….it was a popular joke to say, ‘every time I open my mouth I put my foot in it.’ This became so commonplace that people took to speaking of ‘putting one’s foot in one’s mouth’ and a tactless person as ‘having foot-in-mouth disease’.”

There are some unfilled crevices in that theory, too.

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Frustrated, I wonder why I bother to put my best foot forward, and then I go chasing that phrase.

The Free Dictionary says that the phrase means to act as an ideal version of myself, struggling mightily to make a good impression. Phrases.org.uk puts the first published use of ‘best foot forward” in 1613, in a poem by Thomas Overbury called “The Wife.”

“Hee is still setting the best foot forward,” the site quotes Overbury as writing.

The site takes exception with the imagery. It might make sense, it argues, for a four-legged creature to put its best foot forward; but the best a human can do, only having TWO feet, is to put her better foot forward.

In fact, Phrases.org.uk says, Shakespeare uses the term in just that way, in King John (1595). He writes:

“Nay, but make haste; the better foot before.”

It makes sense to me that, if we’re not sure where a phrase comes from, we give the credit to Shakespeare.

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And then I started thinking about ‘footing the bill,’ and the more I thought of THAT image, the more ridiculous it seemed. I imagine footballs full of money flying over goal posts, and I went looking for the sensible origins of the term. And I found an explanation on zippyfacts.com, that submerges ‘footing the bill’ deep into a sexist quagmire.

The term, the site posits, dates back to a time when women had to bring a dowry to their marriages. “Footing up” back then meant totaling the bill…with the ‘foot’ of the bill being what we’d call today the bottom line. So the costs of the wedding, and the cost of the dowry, were footed up.

And the bride’s family had better cough up the cash.

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By the time I finished looking up ‘footing the bill,’ I realize my feet were no longer cold, my thoughts had settled into calm, grim rows, and my brain was not functioning at a learning level. It was time to sleep.

So I turned off the lamp, and I hotfooted it back to bed (etymonline: “hastily,” c.1300.)

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Speaking in Terms of the Dead

“Do you think,” my son Jim asks me, “you might be home early?”

I contemplate the event I’m about to attend. It’s one I helped plan, and by rights, I need to stay after it concludes and make sure things are orderly and well-wrapped-up.

“No,” I tell Jim, and I am rueful. “I think I will be there until the last dog dies.”

There’s a startled silence. Then, “What?” says Jim. “Eeeuw!  What does THAT mean?”

“Well, you know,” I say, taken aback. Can it be I’ve never used that expression before? It’s one I grew up with, and, like so many turns of phrase we regularly use, never questioned. “It means…well. It means I’ll be there until the very end.”

“Ooooo-kay,” says Jim, and he gives me an odd look and leaves the room.  And he leaves me thinking: where DOES that odd phrase come from?

I type, “…till the last dog dies…” into a search engine.  And my goodness, what I learn.

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I learn that President Bill Clinton used the phrase in a speech in Dover, New Hampshire, in the early 1990’s. If the citizens would give him a second chance, Clinton promised, he would hang in there until the last dog dies. There are several references to the phrase in reports of this speech–maybe it’s taken to be a quaint Arkansas-ism, although I heard it from my mother whose speech was influenced by her Scottish family and her Buffalo, New York, companions. How is it that Clinton and my mama share this unique phrase?

I type ‘etymology’  after ‘the last dog dies’ and hit search.

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Again, I hit a treasure-lode of theories. It seems the phrase evolved from another, more specific one: until the last dog is hung. Stuart Edward White used the term in his 1902 novel, according to http://www.phrases.org. White wrote, “It was a point of honor among them to stay until the last dog was hung.”

This theory posits that ‘dog’ referred to an unsavory human–specifically, to a desperado in the Wild West. There is talk of ‘noose parties’ at which dozens of undesirable ‘dogs’ are dispatched at once–this particularly macabre party was over, then, ‘when the last dog was hung.’

That Wild West interpretation could explain how the phrase trickled into an Arkansas vocabulary, but not so much into a western New Yorker’s.  I read on.

Another theory has it that the phrase is based on Seneca Indian lore. The Senecas, it is suggested, celebrated a five-day New Year’s festival, culminating in the strangling of a white dog, which was then hung from a pole. The holiday lasted, the revelers stayed on, until the white dog was hung, I guess, according to this interpretation.

Eeeeuw, indeed. Hung varmints, hung dogs. It is isn’t getting any nicer. But, grimly, I read on.

Mark A. Mandel–also known as ‘Dr. Whom,’ so I am guessing he must be of meticulous grammar intent–writes about a reference to the phrase in Margaret George’s fictional The Autobiography of Henry VIII. (This is not a George book I have read, although I enjoyed her Mary Queen of Scots book very much.) George writes a scene, Mandel  says, in which Henry is vividly bringing a point about loyalty home to his nobles, who have been caught plotting intrigue against their king. The monarch pits a pack of feral dogs against a regal lion. Woe, Henry thinks, to the dogs.

But, ooops. Henry didn’t plan for this: the dogs overpower and kill the lion.. Henry has to do something definitive fast, so he orders each of the dogs to be strung up and hung until dead, and  he orders the nobles to stand there and watch until the very last dog breathes its very last breath.

Lovely stuff. I am feeling a little queasy.

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This gets me to thinking, though, about phrases we say that contain the word ‘dead,’–like for instance, when we say a thing or person that looks just like another is a ‘dead ringer.’ There’s a grisly theory, my online research tells me, about this phrase, too.

Many people believe it comes from the custom, in the days before science could prove definitively that a person was really most sincerely dead, of tying a long string around the presumed corpse’s finger. The casket would be buried, but the string would wend up to the surface of the grave and be attached to a bell on a pole. Then, if the corpse should re-awaken, the twitching of the finger would pull the string and ring the bell and grave diggers would converge and hopefully, disinter the poor surprised buried person before the air ran out, six feet below.

A not-so-dead ringer, I guess in reality. But wait–says one site–what does that have to do with the meaning of the phrase? A wakened sleeper could be construed as a once-dead ringer, but how does that relate to two things that appear to be mirror images?

In fact, it does not, my research suggests. Instead, in late 1800’s horse-racing, there was a habit of substituting a horse that looked remarkably like the authentic racer. The subs were called ‘ringers’, and dead here meant precise or exact–a dead ringer, an exact substitute.

That makes more sense, I think. It also is much less the stuff of which nightmares are made. (This all puts me in mind of a horrendous Scottish folk tale my mother used to tell about a beautiful young wife who had what they called the ‘sleeping sickness,’ and was buried alive, accidentally, while her devoted sea captain husband was far, far away…but the hair on my arm is rising and a chill finger creeps up my back. Let’s leave that tale alone…)

(I look up, by the way, the definition of dead as precise, exact, or irrevocable, hoping to find that etymology, but my quick search just tells me English speakers have used ‘dead’ in that way for a long, long time.)

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Unbidden an old, old memory comes to me, of a young and crazy time, of being sound asleep when a warm body slipped in next to mine in the wee morning hours and whispered hoarsely, “You might find a few dead soldiers in the kitchen when you get up.”

And on tumbling out of bed for work the next morning, I found not a few, but a battalion of empty beer bottles marching all over the table.

When did an empty bottle become a ‘dead soldier’?

Phrase Finder (phrases.org.uk) offers me an interesting post from Mike in 2001, saying that William the IV orginally coined the phrase ‘dead marines.’ He was at dinner with the Duke of Clarence, and the table was quite cluttered with irritatingly empty bottles. The King waved to have the surface cleared.

“Take away those marines,” he said, gesturing to the bottles.

A high-ranking marine officer was at dinner. He respectfully asked the King why he chose his branch of the service in talking about the bottles.

“I call them marines,” Mike reports the King said, “because they are good fellows who have done their duty and are ready to do it again.”

Clearly, In William the Fourth’s day, beer bottles were refillable.

Mike goes on to report that empty beer bottles have been called ‘dead soldiers’ in the US since WWI. (Dictionary.com supports this, tracing the usage back to 1915.) It must have been another grimly humorous acknowledgement of the loss of life and the need for comfort in a harrowing time. And it was an apt image, perhaps, Mike suggests, in that “the ‘spirits’ had left the bottle…”

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I close up the Safari app, and I get up to clear away the dishes. I am humbled.

I am the snooty English teacher who has said to generations of students, from sixth graders to college seniors, “Don’t USE a word if you cannot DEFINE a word.”

I am the pain-in-the-neck mother who has preached for yay, these forty-some years, “If you don’t know what you’re saying, you shouldn’t be saying anything.”

And yet, “I’ll be staying till the last dog dies,” I say blithely and unthinkingly. I, who thought I was so conscious, so mindful of my speech. I who thought I was in control of my turns of phrase.

I rinse the plates and I slide them into their dishwasher slots and I think sadly that I have been dead wrong.

A Word Nerd, A New Blog, and The Living Language

 

Dictionary

I hate it, they’d say.  It’s so confusing, and all the rules have exceptions.

On the second or third day of English comp, I asked my students to pull out their softcover dictionaries.  They unhooked the backpacks from their chairs, or hefted them up from the floor, and they pulled the American Heritage volumes from the welter of supplies within. They fwapped them onto the tables in front of them…and they looked at me with eyes that did not shine.

Oh joy, I read on their faces.  Tonight we’ll be looking things up in the dictionary.

We weren’t looking for pronunciation, parts of speech, or various meanings, however. That class, we were trying to find out why English was so darned challenging, so irregular,–often, so hard to spell.

So they looked up ‘sight’ and found it came from the Old English sihth, meaning ‘something seen.’  Back then, all those consonants meant something, too–were pronounced in common speech; the meaning travelled through time with the word, but the guttural sounds were lost.

We looked up ‘site’ and found it came from the Latin ‘situs,’ meaning ‘position.’  The tail end of that word got lost over the ages.

And we looked up ‘cite’ and followed its circuitous path backwards, from Middle English back to Old English back to its original Latin roots.  Back then, probably, the ‘c’ was hard, rather than sibilant, but time and accent mashed that word, as it mashed site and sight, and now we pick from a platter of words that all sound the same–but you choose your spelling and meaning.

They started to get a little interested, those students.  One might say, Well, what about might and mite then?  Yeah, another might add, how about kid meaning a child and kid meaning a goat?  Are those from different languages?

My English teacher’s heart would swell with joy. Look them up, I’d say.  Look them up.  Who can find a word with French roots?  Give me a word that comes from the Greek.  What are the roots of shish kebab?

And for a while we would play with the language, putting words under lenses, poking at them with toothpicks, looking for the molecules, the atoms, the fiber that creates them.  Words are born somewhere, but just like people, they are changed by their travels and experiences.

We’d talk, too, about how words can be different from area to area in a same-language country, how the same word can mean different things in different places.  So ‘sack’ can mean to terminate an employee, it can be a slang term for the place one sleeps, or it can be a thing in which one puts groceries.

We took a poll: are those sweet fizzy drinks pop, or are they soda?

The students would have funny stories about traveling somewhere and being misunderstood because their home term meant something else entirely in the new place.

And then I’d ask then about words that have come into the language within their lifetimes, or words whose meanings have changed within their lifetimes.  If their great-grandmas had been asked, as children, “Is that a mouse next to that tablet?” it would have conjured up an entirely different mental picture than the same question posed today. They would come up with examples of new words and changed words, and then we’d speculate…will our truncated Twitterings someday be standard English?

I always loved teaching that session, when we opened up the language and saw its beating heart, realized (for me, anew, every time) that it wasn’t just an ornery, stuffy, old carcass to be studied, but a living, breathing, growing entity–one that was challenging, funny, twisted, slippery, and fascinating.

I was reminded of that last night when I found John Kelly’s blog, The Mashed Radish: everyday etymologies (mashedradish.com).  Kelly plucks a word out of the news or popular media and explores its roots, and the exploration is not only fascinating historically but revealing in terms of the modern incident.  I commented, a grateful word nerd, on Kelly’s post tracing–a la Donald Trump–the word ‘hormone.’  Kelly responded that he thinks exploring etymologies “..gives us just a little deeper insight or different way of thinking about the news of the day.”

I love that concept.  I clicked ‘follow.’