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Feature Stories

American phrases you know, but do you know where they originate?

Tom Laue, Executive Editor

American PhrasesIt's time again for the popular "LifeTimes" word game - studying well-known phrases to try to figure out how they got their names. This time, we list only phrases that spring up in the United States. Meanings come first, followed by origins at the bottom of this page.

Commonly known U.S. phrases

  1. Happy as a clam. We know this means very content. Absolutely nothing in the world can upset us. But how happy is a clam? Is it even possible for clams to be happy?
  2. Goody two-shoes. We know this refers to people who cozy up to others in an exaggerated, very friendly way. They want to get something by being coy, smug, sentimental, or subservient. It's usually an act. But what does it have to do with two shoes?
  3.  It's nice to be in like Flynn or lead the life of Riley. What did they do to get enduring, feel-good phrases named for them? Were they real people?
  4. Run of the mill means routine, very ordinary, expected, common. But what is so common about a mill run? Mill for wheat? Mill for lumber? Mill for something else?
  5. Birds and the bees is a phrase used to tell children about sex without getting into detail. It's like telling them, "Storks bring babies." But what is it that makes the birds and the bees a useful symbol of early sex education for little kids?
  6. The whole shebang. This describes situations in which everything is involved. Thus, we say a stock market investor who loses all the funds in an account has lost "the whole shebang." It works the other way, too. If just one player picks the right numbers in a lottery, "the whole shebang" goes to that person.
  7. Red-letter day means someone has a lot of good fortune on a given day. But couldn't we just say it's a lucky day? Why is such a happy day called "red-letter" instead?

The phrases' origins

  1. Happy as a clam is likely shortened from "happy as a clam at high water," when clams are freest from predators.
  2. This is unlike most phrase origins because we know exactly where it comes from. But still in doubt is who wrote the 1765 book ("The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes") where it appears. Some say Oliver Goldsmith, but others cast doubt. "Goody two-shoes" is an orphan girl with just one shoe. When she is given a second, she can't stop gushing about her good fortune and becomes virtuous in every way.
  3. Flynn. Riley. Those who study these things say it refers to hugely popular actor Errol Flynn (real) and an imaginary, typical Irishman (no first name) Riley. In Flynn's early 20th century film idol heyday, "in" meant always successful; Flynn was that. "Life of Riley" seems to be a generic Irish phrase, popularized in the U.S., for the well-off.
  4. Now expanded to all things ordinary, run of the mill appears to have been used first in America to describe weaving mills supplying clothes makers. A Massachusetts firm selling clothes from one mill ran this ad: "Seconds and the run of the mill, but for all wearing purposes just the same as firsts costing twice the price."
  5. The first direct link between birds and the bees and sex education appears in West Virginia's "Charleston Gazette" in 1929. Author unknown, it reads, "Sex was whispered about (even mothers pretended to be surprised by babies), but never mentioned in public. We looked into sex and found it perfectly natural, in the flowers and the trees, in the birds and the bees."
  6. The whole shebang refers to anything in its entirety. This is the easy part. Much harder is figuring out what a "shebang" is. An 1869 newspaper list of "Idioms of Our New West" flatly states "any house or office." Earlier, the word meant huts. Or maybe "shebang" is derived from similar English and French words (spelled "charabanc" and "charabancs") describing public carriages with seats. The English pronounce it "sherra-bang."
  7. Red-letter days - now any special day - comes straight from the centuries-old practice of announcing church festivals by writing in red. Or as proclaimed in 1490, "We wryte yet in our kalenders the hyghe festes wyth lettres of rede coloure."

"LifeTimes" acknowledges original research by Gary Martin, who has researched phrase origins for decades. If you have phrases to share with "LifeTimes," please send them to: "LifeTimes Phrases, 300 E. Randolph, 36th Floor, Chicago IL 60601 or email them to lifetimesdepartment@bcbsil.com with "Phrases" in the subject line.