Know your onions
Posted by ESC on December 12, 2003
In Reply to: Nice phrases for work-field familiarity posted by werner on December 12, 2003
: I used the phrase "a pig knows the mud he rolls in" the other day, to mean that someone knows the familiar territory among his peers. My wife thought it was a crude phrase and later objected to it.
: Are there phrases that mean the same thing, but are more genteel? What I wanted to convey is that a person who long works in a particular field knows his peers and their habits and intents, knows the work, knows the routines, understands the signals, etc.
: Someone told me they had never heard my phrase about pigs, although they didn't understand my wife's distaste. Well, it was imply that pigs are gross and dirty in some people's minds and not to be spoken about among genteel urbanites.
Here's a couple of strange ones. I have heard the first one but not the second:
KNOW YOUR ONIONS -- Onions - (plural noun) business, affairs. 1954. W.G. Smith South St. 297: You just sit here, tend to your onions, let me handle the people what cross me. From the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume 2, H-O by J.E. Lighter, Random House, New York, 1994. Why onions? Mr. Lighter doesn't say. Another definition for "onion" in the same reference is "the head" as in "off one's onion." "know (one's) onions (or oats or oil or apples, etc.) to be astute or have thorough knowledge, esp. from personal experience; be very knowledgeable.1922 'Harper's' (Mar.) 530: 'Mr. Roberts knows his onions, all right.'." From Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume 2, H-O by J.E. Lighter, Random House, New York, 1994.
KNOW ONE'S CANS - "Cowboys on the range in the 19th century were usually starved for reading matter and often read the labels on the cook's tin cans, learning them by heart. A tenderfoot could always be distinguished because he didn't know his cans." From Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).