Remnants of a Lost World 

Rosie Right

In a recent Uh-Oh, Rosie had to admit that Style printed the phrase "put through the ringer." This silly error caused her to think about the phrases we use every day that must mean very little to the younger generations. What do you think it means to those under 25 when we say someone talks like a broken record? To approach an understanding of the literal basis of this phrase, the young would probably have to say "He is talking like a damaged CD," and actually that would not make sense because a damaged CD is likely to skip not repeat over and over.

What about our use of the phrase jump on the bandwagon? This refers to the wagon (usually carrying a calliope) that led the parade when a circus came to town. It's hard, to find such a parade today.

Dead as a doornail, on the surface, appears to be a mystery. But according to the charming book "Loose Cannons and Red Herrings," by Robert Claiborne, "until recently nails were hand-made, expensive, and therefore used only when absolutely necessary. Houses and ships were fastened together with hardwood pegs, called tree nails.

"One place where the costly iron nails often were necessary was in making doors, which are under repeated stress from being opened and closed They therefore had to be either glued together, requiring the expensive services of a skilled joiner, or, for the unskilled or do-it-yourself builder nailed together. The nails were customarily driven all the way through the boards and clinched by hammering down the points. Since they couldn't be reused they were 'dead' as a doornail."

Other "lost metaphors" are brass hat, which Charles Funk tells us means "any person in authority, especially one who has an overbearing attitude ... soldiers used it to designate a general, because the quantity of gold braid about t that officer's dress cap made it shimmer in the sun as if the entire cap were made if brass..."

And A feather in one's cap as in "That's quite a feather in your cap," compliments someone on an achievement. According to Funk: "Five or six centuries ago the expression was a literal statement; a man who had gained distinction, especially upon the battlefield, actually wore a feather in his cap or helmet as a token of his prowess."

If you are interested in reading about other sayings that seem to have come loose from their moorings look at "Loose Cannons and Red Herrings," a book about "lost metaphors" by Robert Claiborne, and "A Hog on Ice."

Let Rosie hear from you by telephone (358-0825), fax (355-9089), letter 1118 W. Main St., Richmond, Va. 23220) or e-mail (rright@richmond.infi.net)


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