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American phrases

Posted by E. Smith-Carroll on May 29, 1999

In Reply to: American phrases posted by Gary Martin on May 29, 1999

First, I want to say how much I enjoy this site. My only complaint is that it's very addictive!

In my opinion, all the phrases you listed are common. People are familiar with them, but might not use them in everyday speech.

Eight ways to Sunday/ Six ways to Sunday - I've heard these and used them occasionally. But I'm not exactly sure what they mean! And they aren't listed in my books. So I'm guessing here. I understand that they both mean - scattered. My necklace broke and the beads went eight ways to Sunday. And (this is a bit violent): He knocked him six ways to Sunday. Calling up an image of flying teeth.

23 skidoo - This is an old phrase (from the 20s?) that I haven't heard anyone use in everyday speech. But it's probably the best-known expression from that time period. I've heard it used in old movies, etc., but I don't know what it means.

Cup of Joe - Cup of coffee. I think everyone knows what it means (variations: cup of java/cup of mud) but I've rarely heard it used outside of old detective movies. Or maybe truck stops (restaurants catering to truckers). Maybe I just don't hang around the right people. I couldn't find the expression in any of my books, which is surprising. But I think it's interesting to note that in Listening to America: An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from Our Lively and Splendid Past by Stuart Berg Flexner, Simon and Schuster, Mr. Flexner has a whole section on the common use of "Joe" or "joe" in American expressions.

Hang ten - A surfing term referring, I am guessing, to one's ten toes hanging off a surfboard. My 15-year-old kids have heard of it, so I guess it's still used.

Dog and pony show - Very common in the business community. This is a business cliché that I hear almost every day. It means putting together a presentation to impress a committee or group. In government, people in an agency have to put together a "dog and pony show" complete with guest speakers, slides, charts, etc., to impress a legislative committee.

In a coon's age - It means a long time. The expression is referring to the life of a raccoon, commonly called a coon, although I don't know if coons are especially long lived. "I haven't seen you in a coon's age." It's very common in my stomping ground (Kentucky/West Virginia). My teen-aged children have heard of it but don't use it. (I am guessing that some people mistakenly think it refers to a racial slur -- coon for an African-American -- and avoid its use.) From NTC's Dictionary of Folksy, Regional, and Rural Sayings by Anne Bertram, NTC Publishing Group: "in a coon's age - in a long time. (See also in an age of years; in dog's years; month of Sundays; since Hector was a pup.)"

Indian-giver - Very common. But I imagine as people become more sensitive to Native American concerns, this one will die out. I've always understood the term to mean giving a gift, then taking it back. Here's what Mr. Funk says, "...even back in colonial days an 'Indian gift' referred 'to the alleged custom among Indians,' according to the 'Handbook of American Indians' issued by the Smithsonian Institution, 'of expecting an equivalent for a gift or otherwise its return..' The same authority defines 'Indian giver' 'A repentant giver.'" Heavens to Betsy! and Other Curious Sayings by Charles Earle Funk, Harper & Row.

Get your ducks in a row - Very common in the business communication. I hear this one every day too. I've always heard it prior to an upcoming event. Do you have your ducks in a row? Meaning, are you prepared, do you have everything ready? This is slightly different from the following explanation, that indicates it's something said after a task is completed. From Why You Say It: The Fascinating Stories Behind over 600 Everyday Words and Phrases by Webb Garrison: "Ducks in a Row, Get/Put Your - Primitive versions of modern bowling were known many centuries ago. Pins of varied sizes and shapes were employed. Eventually they were standardized at fifteen inches in both height and circumstances. Originally called ten-pins, the equipment used in Europe was employed in the earliest American bowling saloons. The game was modified by introduction of a short, slender pin that was compared with a duck and, by extension, called them duckpins. So many people reset so many pins in rows that one who completes a task is commended as having put his 'ducks in a row.'"

If I had my druthers - Means, if I had my way. Common among older people but not used much by the youngsters. From Whistlin' Dixie: A Dictionary of Southern Expressions by Robert Hendrickson, Pocket Books: "Druthers - Choice, preference, as in 'If I had my druthers, I wouldn't be leaving; sometimes 'ruthers.'" This same book lists a saying I've never heard: "Your druthers is my ruthers, A mostly black phrase that means your preference is mine."

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