‘Good night, Gracie’

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Sometimes we catch ourselves using and reusing language, and we delete and rephrase ourselves, proud of rutting out a cliché. Half a page further on and we look at what we’ve written and without hesitation, delete it in favor of a cliché. Some clichés are just right for the job, with no apologies.

Hence a few entries from The Dictionary of Clichés by James Rogers. Some of his more than 2,000 entries are so obscure you wonder why he bothered; others are so exactly right they shine like a new penny.

Join me amongst the clichés….

In the doghouse: In someone’s bad graces. I was surprised to learn this expression may have come into common use in James M. Barry’s Peter Pan in 1904. When Mr. Darling treated the children’s beloved Newfoundland dog badly, the kids flew away and Mr. D. did penance by staying in Nana’s doghouse until they came home.

Hunky Dory: All right, safe, cozy. Several explanations, including that there is a street called Huncho-dori in Yokohama, frequented by American sailors.

Go whole hog: Go all the way; stop at nothing. Two origins: “Hog” once meant a shilling, so going whole hog meant to splurge. And since Muslims allegedly had trouble deciding which part of the hog they were not meant to eat, they were advised by poet William Cowper to eat it all. (That doesn’t make sense, does it?)

On tenterhooks: In suspense about the outcome of something. Today a tenter is one who is camping out, but in 1633 it referred to a frame for stretching cloth, and tenterhooks were the bent nails or hooks that held it on the frame.

Three sheets to the wind: Drunk. In Boatspeak a sheet is slang for a rope that controls the sail. If allowed to go slack or in the wind, a sheet is ineffective, and if several sheets are in the wind, the vessel goes erratically like a drunk.

A-OK: Things couldn’t be better. This is of space-age vintage, and was coined by John Powers, a spokesman for NASA in 1961.

To rain cats and dogs: To pour, to rain heavily. May refer to ancient superstitions that the cat can influence the weather and the dog was a symbol of wind. Another possibility is that fighting cats and dogs resemble thunder and lightening. Or vice versa.

To read the Riot Act: To issue a severe warning or scold. King George I of England issued a riot act in 1716 and the short of it was that any gathering of 12 persons or more and causing or purposely having a tumultuously disturbing effect on the public peace are to disperse peaceably. All self-policing should be so automatic.

Upper Crust: The aristocracy, the elite. Nothing more glamorous than the top crust of bread, it is used to gauge the quality of the whole.

Wear two hats: Having two responsibilities. A hat is often the symbol of one’s occupation. Firefighters, for example, change into street clothes for another job when their shift is over.

Hoist by his own petard: A victim of his own device, especially good at blowing open gates and barricades. A sort of explosive device that went off too soon, blowing to pieces the engineer who was trying to set it.

Keep your eyes peeled: Be on the lookout. Reference possibly to fruit that is the better for leaving its skin on: apples, oranges, potatoes. The Political Examiner in Selby Kentucky recorded the advice as early as 1833, as “keep your eyes skinned.” Ewww.

Water over the dam: Something that is over with, irretrievable. Much more recent than you might think. Richard Sere in Passing Strangers, 1942: “That’s water under the dam.” “Bridge” I said. “Or water over the dam.”

“Either way, the flowing water has passed by and will not return.”

And so with this little tome. I’m having a computer glitch and can’t tell how long this is.

If previous counts count, it’s probably time to say, “Good night, Gracie.”

“Good night, George.

But why?