Let's Reminisce: Remembering colorful language
By Jerry Lincecum
Mar 6, 2018
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Recently I had the humbling experience of obtaining a new piece of equipment only to realize that the old one did a better job.  It struck me that I had bought “a pig in a poke.”  In that old country expression, the “poke” is a sack, and when you buy a pig in a sack, you can’t be sure what you are getting.  I enjoy rediscovering idiomatic expressions like that one and learning what they originally meant.

“Barking up the wrong tree” is a good metaphor for following a mistaken course of action, like those politicians who say arming teachers will solve the problem of school shootings.  I learned the literal meaning of that phrase as a boy when my great-uncle and I often found his coondog barking up a tree which had no animal in it.

“Close but no cigar” to describe an effort that fell just a little short goes back to the days when game stalls at the county fair gave out cigars as prizes.  If you just barely missed knocking the milk bottle off the stand, it was a “miss as good as a mile,” for you got no reward.

I’m old enough to remember when my mother gave up her woodstove for one that was heated with butane gas, so the expression “cooking with gas” made sense to me as referring to making progress.  Since I no longer had to split logs to make stove wood or lug it into the kitchen on a daily basis, I felt we were moving up in the world.

One expression that I used without knowing its original meaning was “dark horse,” referring to the winner of a contest who seemed to come out of nowhere.  It is often used in reference to a political candidate, and that started in the 1840s when James K. Polk won the Democratic presidential nomination on the eighth ballot and then went on to win the election.  Obviously our current president could be considered a dark horse.

Our language has many colloquial terms reserved for stupid people: addlepate, blockhead, booby, chowderhead, dimwit, dipstick, dolt, duffer, dunce, meathead, nincompoop, numbskull, pinhead, simpleton, stooge, and twit.  You can pick the one which resonates with your frustration or anger at the moment.  We also have a lot of synonyms for those annoying know-it-alls:  smart aleck, sly boots, smarty pants, wise guy, wiseacre and swellhead.  Also not appreciated is the scowling grouch known as “sourpuss,” “gloomy Gus” or “pickleface.”
The phrase “stick in the mud” was used to designate an “old fogy” as far back as the 1500s, and it was given an excellent definition in an 1891 dictionary: “a person who is wholly without the spirit of enterprise or adventure.”  The King James version of the Gospel of Matthew (23:24) gave us the expression “to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.”

The expression “every Tom, Dick and Harry” suggesting anonymous, interchangeable people has special meaning for me because I knew a family with three sons: Dick, Tom and Harry, and I can call up their faces.  Since the brothers had a sister named Gay, this family epitomizes for me unconventional naming.

“23 skidoo, ” meaning to “beat it” or “scram,” is unique in our vernacular because it has thousands of unconfirmed theories about its origins.  It showed up in the 1920s and found its way into countless literary works, including the novels “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

Let’s end with a collection of grandmotherly exclamations which make good conversational alternatives to today’s clichéd responses (“shut up” or “no way”) to hearing surprising information: by golly, dearie me, do tell, geewhilikins, gracious me, heavens to Betsy, I do declare, land’s sake, pray tell, words fail me, you don’t say!

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories. Email him at