Robin Camille Davis
  1. Home /
  2. Blog /
  3. "Word and Phrase Origins": the R section

"Word and Phrase Origins": the R section

July 28, 2009
Tags: words

A bit of bedtime reading. Word and Phrase Origins, compiled by Robert Hendrickson, is pretty legit despite the appalling cover of my edition. I bought mine for $5.00 from Cellar Stories in Providence. It retails for $95.00. Can I get a "w00t"? I can get a "w00t."

red herring
Red herring are herring that have been cured and become red in color. Escaping criminals in the 17th century would drag strong-smelling red herring across a trail to make pursuing bloodhounds lose the scent. This practice inspired the popular expression to drag a red herring across the trail and the more recent, shortened term red herring, which means confusing an issue by dragging in something irrelevant to the matter. [Funny, I'd always thought a "red herring" was some kind of bird, I suppose because a bird suddenly flying in your face might be distracting... Not everything is a bird, Robin.]

ride shotgun
To act as a guard, or to ride in the front seat of a car. The expression was suggested by the armed guard with a shotgun who often rode beside the driver on stagecoaches in the old American West. [This might seem obvious to you, but I really had no idea.]

ring the bell; ring a bell
To ring the bell, "to succeed at something," is an Americanism that has its origins in either amusement park shooting galleries, where the marksman rings a bell when he hits the target, or in those familiar carnival strength-testing machines, where a person tries to sledgehammer a wooden ball hard and high enough up a board to ring a bell. Ring the bell is common in the spiels, or pitches, for both games. To ring a bell — "to strike a familiar chord, to evoke a memory" — on the other hand, may refer to memories evoked by ringing church bells or school bells. [I could actually see the carnival etymology working for the memory evocation, as a sort of "ding! I just remembered" feeling. I've never heard "ring the bell" as a synonym for success, though.]

rope of sand
Expressing futility, ties that neither bind nor hold, rope of sand is an old English expression that is first recorded in 1624, but may well be proverbial. One early use: "...this rope of sand which Tradition is." [I like this image very much. Let's use this phrase more often, okay?]

Forget books, or even e-books. I'm just going to read the etymologies of words & phrases from now on!