Do You Know What You’re Really saying?

A Brief History of Popular but Insignificant: Acronyms, Phrases, and Sayings.

Did you know that in addition to your body, your mouth is sometimes on autopilot?

We spew out acronyms, phrases, and saying without knowing their origin or meaning.

But they still fit.

The history of words and how we use them is as interesting and a lot more peaceful than man's history.

Like technology, language has evolved.

Words have been added, and the meaning of certain ones has changed. Forty years ago there was a saying ‘ain’t in the dictionary.’ Well, it is now. Dope used to mean illegal drugs; now, the meaning is akin to something being ‘awesome.’

And whoever heard of a cell phone?

The words fat and PHAT (pretty hot and tempting) are polar opposites in meaning.

We also have acronyms.

Acronyms are words that are formed from the letters of other words. And some are not derived from Latin or Greek. The majority of legitimate acronyms have a birth date in the mid-20th century.

If a word or phrase is older and was not used in the military, the phrase to describe it probably was invented first, which means the process was backwards so it is referred to as a ‘backronym.’ Examples are:

shit — Ship high in transit
f**k — For unlawful carnal knowledge.

But there are plenty that are legit.

For example, the word laser didn’t exist until 1960 because lasers didn’t exist until 1960. Theodore H. Maiman invented the first “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation,” at Hughes Research Laboratories. (LASER.)

Thank God for acronyms.

There are a few examples of authentic acronyms coined before 1943, but for the most part, those came into existence in the armed forces.

A good example is radar: Radio Detection and Ranging (1941).

And it’s close relative sonar: Sound Navigating And Ranging. Although Lewis Nixon, a naval architect, invented a sonar-like device in 1906, it did not become significant until after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

With the start of WWI in 1914, the technology was improved and the first active SONAR device for detecting submarines was invented.

Moving on.

Phrases and Sayings

There are literally thousands of phrases and sayings. Some are pearls of wisdom we use regularly. Others are flippant comebacks, but the meaning is crystal clear.

Here are a few:

A Dog is Man’s Best Friend.

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And this has been proven again and again. However, dogs were previously called hounds and were not always judged to be the all-loving creatures they are today.

The change began in 1880 in a case where a farmer shot a neighbor’s dog. The owner sued for damages and his lawyer, George Graham Vest, gave a tear-jerking speech that became known as the Eulogy to a Dog.

This is news to me.

However, the origin of the actual phrase was printed in The New York Literary Journal, Vol. 4 in 1821:

“The faithful dog — why should I strive
To speak his merits, while they live
In every breast, and
man’s best friend
Does often at his heels attend.”

A knight in shining armor

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Photo by: Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Today’s use is figurative and refers to a man rescuing a woman, though to even write this twisted statement makes me want to laugh. This is 2020 and women are not the swooning maidens of Camelot.

Knights in shining armor are a rare breed.

The phrase was first used in the late 18th century in The British Journal, the Monthly Review, 1790, in a poem called, Amusement.

“ No more the knight, in shining armour dress’d
Opposes to the pointed lance his breast…”

Too bad they had to lose the armor or armour.

A legend in your own time (or in one’s own lifetime)

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Florence Nightingale — HISTORY

Believe it or not, this phrase's first use refers to none other than Florence Nightingale, a pioneer and the founder of modern nursing.

In his book Eminent Victorians, 1918, Giles Lytton Strachey wrote:
“She was a legend in her lifetime, and she knew it.”

This phrase is also used as sarcasm in reference to people who have stilted opinions of themselves.

A man after my own heart

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This one comes from the Bible, King James Version, in two different places. The most relevant one is Acts 13:22:

“… I have found David, the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfill all my will.”

Sounds a bit optimistic to me.

A skeleton in the closet

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One of the possible derivations of this phrase dates back to England to 1832 at a time when body-snatchers, aka grave robbers, supplied corpses to doctors for medical research and teaching, and doctors concealed them in closets.

Another possible source is Edgar Allan Poe who used hidden bodies as a dramatic device in his Gothic novels. One such example is from The Black Cat, 1845:

“Gentlemen, I delight to have allayed your suspicions, and here, through the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom. The wall fell bodily….”

Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray also used the phrase as a shorthand for evidence of a murder in his work, The Newcomse; memoirs of a most respectable family, 1854–55:

“Some particulars regarding the Newcome family, which will show us that they have a skeleton or two in their closets, as well as their neighbours.”


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This word was first used in the 4th century and has a Latin derivative. However, several theories place it even earlier than that, though none stand-up under scrutiny.

One of the more interesting ones is in relation to another magical word, ‘.’ In the Greek system of alphabetic numerology, the letters add up to 365, the number of days in a year. Each letter has a numerical value. Follow the link and do the math if you’re so inclined.

Over time, the power of the word faded and it now means “fake magic.”

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

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This is an old-English proverb that expresses people’s mindset. It means people, like horses, will do what they want even when they’re given the means to do otherwise.

In 1175 in Old English Homilies, translated from the Old English it means:

“who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?”

It also appears in the play Narcissus, 1602, subtitled,

A Twelfth Night Merriment, played by youths of the parish at the College of Saint John the Baptist in Oxford:

“Your parents have done what they coode,
they can but bring horse to the water brinke,
But horse may choose whether that horse will drinke.”

And last, but not least:

Zero Tolerance

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This was first and is still commonly used as a policing term. It has been a policy associated with the war on drugs. It is also a policing method.

Before that, it was used by the US Food and Drug Administration where “zero tolerance” was used to describe the amounts of pesticides allowed in food, like milk.

Thank God for small favors.

Oh, how the times have changed! Guess there was no Monsanto back then.

It was in Michigan newspaper The News- Palladium, October 1954:

“….the zero-tolerance proposed for mercury sprays might be the most troublesome to growers.”

And there are thousands more.

It is funny to see how much of what we say is literally thousands of years old, even dating back to the Bible, but still applicable to life today.

I guess words have a timelessness all their own.

Marilyn is a writer, yogi, and spiritual medium. Her favorite people are animals, especially ones that meow. She loves the ocean and hates one-use plastic.

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