Writer’s Block: What’s that supposed to mean?

The English language as we use it here in the Midwest sure has some funny phrases. Ever wonder where some of our slang comes from?

Sue Austreng
Sue Austreng

Here are some (unproven and highly unscientific) answers I found with a quick connecting flight through cyberspace.

Let’s start with this one: raining cats and dogs. We’ve had some pretty heavy rain this spring and I even heard a weatherman report that it was “raining cats and dogs.” Now, it’s true, it was raining hard, but “cats and dogs” – what’s that supposed to mean?

Well, that phrase has its origins in the 1500s. According to folklore, cats and dogs hid in the thatched roofs of the houses when it started to rain. If it rained hard enough, the water would wash them out and they would fall to the ground. Or it would become so slippery up there that those roofs became water slides and the animals spilled out onto the ground.

Now how about this one: ever shopped at a flea market? Just talking about going to the flea market can make a hypochondriac feel itchy. But why do they call a flea market a flea market? One idea is rooted in France where goods sold at outdoor markets there became infested with bugs, and so those markets literally became flea markets.

Another thought is that those markets were illegal in Paris and when authorities came, the vendors would flee! (Or would they flea? Depends on who’s telling the story, I guess.)

Well, it’s baseball season and most folks have heard about “the seventh-inning stretch.” You know, that’s when everyone stands up and sings “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” And then, of course, folks will take a trip to the concession stand, grab a beer and a brat, maybe “buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks …”

But how did the seventh-inning stretch get started? Legend has it that the seventh-inning stretch actually has presidential roots. President William Howard Taft was at a ball game back in 1910 and by the seventh inning, the plus-sized president just couldn’t sit any longer. So he got up to stretch his legs – and everyone else stood up in respect.

That gesture of respect continues to this day, even though most baseball fans have probaby never heard the story behind it.

Now, keeping with phrases originating in the sporting world, ever heard anyone say something like, “I’ll get to work extra early and ‘get a leg up’ on him.” He’s just saying he’ll go to some extra effort to gain an advantage over the other guy.

Well, to “get a leg up” actually describes the act of an equestrian being helped to mount a horse. You see, the helper would create a foothold for the rider by cupping his hands to hoist the rider up. That way the rider could easily throw his leg up and over the steed. Get it? Get a leg up …

Still in the stables, let’s take a look at where the saying “straight from the horse’s mouth” comes from. That phrase is usually used to indicate that you got information from the most reliable source.

But why “straight from the horse’s mouth?” What makes a horse such an expert? If you’re talking about horse racing and you’re going to place a winning wager on a horse, you’d want to ask the horse how he’s doing. Unless the horse is Mr. Ed, you’re not going to get much out of him. So the most trusted authorities are the stable boys, the trainers, etc. – those who work with the horse on a daily basis.

So if a guy says he got a tip “straight from the horse’s mouth” he just means he got it from an even more reliable source than that inner circle. Maybe not from the horse himself, but pretty close!

And now one more from the sporting world. Since campaign season is nearly upon us, let’s take a look at one used by politicians announcing their candidancy. When someone decides to run for office, you often hear him say he’s going to “throw his hat in the ring.”

That phrase comes from the sport of boxing. You see, back in the 1800s, a man would throw his hat into the boxing ring as a way of announcing that he wanted to challenge someone to a fight. Soon, men in politics adopted the expression to announce that they were ready to challenge any opponent to win election to office.

So that’s a quick look at the history of some of our silly slang. Of course it’s not straight from the horse’s mouth, but still you get the idea.

Sue Austreng can be reached at [email protected]