OFF THE CUFF

To me, exploring the vast world of old sayings and idioms that are so prevalent in the English language never gets old.

Here’s another bunch of familiar phrases and words (that we take for granted despite their somewhat odd sounds or appearances) and a glance at where they might have come from.

•On the money.

We all know that when something is this, it’s entirely accurate, correct or true.

While the phrase’s origin isn’t written in stone (see what I did there?), it probably began with the sport of cricket, where – unlike in baseball – the bowler (or pitcher) bounces the ball off the ground. The ball is harder to hit if pitched at a certain distance from the batsman, which is referred to as “the good length.”

Bowlers would practice hitting the good length by dropping a coin at that spot and trying to hit it. A good toss would of course be “on the money.”

•At large.

Certainly, if a criminal is this, he or she is not in custody. If a sports team in a tournament receives a bid of this sort, it was likely invited rather than earning its way via set criteria.

The term can be traced back to the 1300s and a Latin word, “largus.” It basically means to be free, or not under the influence of restraining powers or entities.

•Gig.

Most of us have heard this word used in association with a live musical performance, but it’s also commonly used in reference to any form of employment, usually of the paid variety.

Although “gig” (or forms of it) has been used for centuries with a variety of meanings, its familiar form was popularized by jazz musicians in the 1920s as a shortened version of “engagement,” and typically referred to one night’s worth of work.

•Vamoose.

Whenever someone does this, they obviously depart from their current location in a hurry.

It’s a slang term that means just that, and came from the American Southwest in the early 1800s when English-speaking cowboys often interacted with Spanish-speaking vaqueros in local saloons. One Spanish term that caught on with the cowboys was “vamos,” which means “we go,” or “let's go.”

•Skedaddle.

Obviously carrying a similar meaning as vamoose, this term likely originated as an alteration of a British slang word, “scaddle,” meaning to run off in a fright. That word might have been a variation of a couple of Scandinavian words.

The term was solidified in the U.S. during the Civil War, and had definite negative undertones during that period, as it was often associated with soldiers cowardly fleeing from hot zones.

•The coast is clear.

A highly recognizable phrase meaning an area or location is free from danger, or that nobody is around who might cause discomfort or inconvenience or alter a plan.

It dates back to the 1500s and originally meant that if sailors were attempting a landing from the sea in hostile territory, the beach was clear of enemies. 

The term could be rooted in a Spanish phrase, “No hay Moros en la costa,” that literally means “there are no Moors along the coast.” This refers to a time when the Moors had overrun Spain, and there was always the concern that a given coast could be a haven for Moors.

•Yippee Ki Yay

Perhaps best known as a favorite saying of Bruce Willis’ character, John McClane, in the series of “Die Hard” movies, it was a high-pitched yell cowboys used in the 1800s to round up cattle the Old West because it was something the animals could easily hear and respond to.

•In a jiffy.

When something is going to be done in this amount of time, we all know it will be done quickly.

But it’s apparently an actual measurement of time in at least two scientific realms.

In electronics, a jiffy is the period of an alternating current power cycle, 1/60 or 1/50 of a second in most cases.

In computing, a jiffy was used in reference to the time between two ticks of the system timer interrupt. It’s not an absolute time interval unit in this case, because its duration depends on the clock interrupt frequency of a given hardware platform.

The earliest known technical usage of “jiffy” was when American physical chemist Gilbert Newton Lewis (1875 – 1946) proposed the word be used to describe a unit of time equal to how long light takes to travel one centimeter in a vacuum.

•Spruce up.

When someone does this to something, we know they’re going to clean it up, and make it neat and tidy.

The phrase dates back to the 16th century, when Spruce was one of the English names for the area of Prussia that bordered the Baltic Sea. The region was known for its fine canvas, timber, iron, leather and other materials. Spruce leather was used to make a style of jacket that became popular and fashionable among the English upper class.

By the late 1500s, the association between Prussia and fashion was so strong that the word “spruce” was used in reference to anyone who was fashionable or smart in appearance, or to making someone neat or fashionable.

•Nimrod

Bugs Bunny is so influential in American culture that he is the sole reason why America uses the term “nimrod” to mean idiot.

Before Bugs, nimrod referred to a mighty hunter, named after the Biblical figure Nimrod. Bugs would sarcastically compare his rival Elmer Fudd to Nimrod, and Americans picked up on the phrase and repurposed it.

Wow, cricket, cowboys, John McClane, Prussia and Bugs Bunny; how’s that for an unusual and interesting mix?

FACT CHECK See inaccurate information in this story? Tell us here.

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