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Jan.-Feb. 2012, Vol. XXVII, No. 1
 
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Where do these well-known phrases originate?

In a recent "LifeTimes" story about where common phrases come from, we asked readers to submit their own candidates for a possible follow-up piece. Your response was so great, we now have enough potential "stumpers" - all from you! - for round two.

So let's get started. Your phrases follow; derivations are at the bottom of the page.

Lickety-split - When something or someone moves very quickly, the action can be described as happening "lickety-split," as in, "When school is out, students race home lickety-split."

Johnny-on-the-spot - This means prompt and attentive, to your needs and often those of others. "When the dinner bell rings, she's always Johnny-on-the-spot. She fills her own plate and everyone else's, too."

"On the day he kicked the bucket, it was raining cats and dogs. But I'll pay my respects to his widow, anyhow, God willing and the Creek don't rise."

"I could take an emergency flight to San Francisco, but the airline will charge me an arm and a leg."

"I get the feeling we're getting the bum's rush."

Sometimes, a company or government agency "cooked its books" during this economic downturn. We know this means tampering with the financial numbers, but why?

If someone very nearly accomplishes something but doesn't quite finish the job, it's common to hear the phrase close but no cigar.

We know someone is in trouble when called on the carpet. Further, it suggests a one-way dressing down in which the authority figure freely berates the offender who can do nothing but stand silently and absorb the abuse.

Answers

Lickety-split is another tough one (remember "humdinger")? Traced in print in the U.S. to 1848, "lickety-split" may combine an extended form of "lick" ("lickety," as in, "They ran at quite a lick" or very fast) with "split." "Split was perhaps added just to provide rhythm, just as trains rolling down the track are said to go "clickety-clack."

Johnny-on-the-spot is easy to understand once you know "Johnny" was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the same way we use "John Doe" today – a stand-in for any male. Others: "stage-door-Johnny" and "Johnny-on-the-job."

People who die "kick the bucket" because wooden frames once used to hang live animals for slaughter were called "buckets." So after slaughter, the dead/dying animals would spasm – or "kick" -- the buckets.

Take your pick on "raining cats and dogs." A common theory is that, when most English houses had thatched roofs where dogs and cats took shelter, they were washed out or jumped down during downpours. It seemed they "rained" down. More graphic are lines from Jonathan Swift's 1710 poem "A Description of a City Shower:"
Sweeping from butchers' stalls, dung, guts, and blood;
Drown'd puppies, stinking sprats, all drench'd in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip-tops, come tumbling down the flood.

God willing and the Creek don't rise has nothing to do with streams. It refers to a message by Native-American liaison Benjamin Hawkins. Called to Washington, Hawkins used the phrase in his reply. He capitalized the word "Creek" to denote Indians, not a body of water.

Portrait artists once charged for how many body parts appeared in their renderings. A head was the cheapest, a head and torso cost more, and a picture with arms and legs cost the most. Thus, something very expensive will cost "an arm and a leg."

Frequently in days past, those in pubs causing trouble or unable to pay were ejected by bouncers who grabbed them by the back of their coat and the waistband just above their bum – or rear end. The ejections were fast. So they "got the bum's rush."

An individual ingredient in a dish or meal may not, by itself, taste good. But when skillfully combined through cooking by master chefs, all ingredients together are mouth-watering. Similarly, when figures in financial documents (the "books") by themselves aren't good, they can be artfully "cooked" to look very good, indeed.

At carnivals many years ago, it was common to give the winners of contests, especially shooting matches, a cigar as the prize. Thus, if people playing carnival games did well but not well enough to win, they were greeted with the comment, "Close but no cigar."

Being called on the carpet is derived from the military. Given the strict chain of command in any armed force, it's quite common for officers to bring subordinates who break some rule into their offices and "explain" the error of their ways. Most often, the explanations are shouted, and the person being so addressed has no option but to endure the commanding officer's tirade.

What does all this have to do with carpeting? When the phrase was coined, usually just officers enjoyed the luxury of carpeted offices.


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