The Ecphorizer

Our Colorful Language
Philip Hughes

Issue #25 (September 1983)

Etymology in a handbasket

revenons a nos moutons

Literally "let us return to our sheep," meaning to stray no longer from the subject at hand, to get back to what one knows best. The phrase derives from a rallying cry by the 15th-century French peasant

...well documented is the connection between bowel habits and meditations on evil...

revolutionary and social reformer Pierre de la [quoteright]Spirochete. Addressing his fellow shepherds after surveying a shipload of middle-aged ladies just arrived from England, he jocularly uttered the line, which was immediately picked up and echoed by those present. Now used facetiously and quite innocent of anti-feminist or chauvinist connotations. See also "sheepish look" and "to cast sheep's eyes at." In other countries, other husbanded animals have occasioned parallel expressions--e.g., "to pig it" or "go the whole hog," "to pony up," and the cover-all euphemism "creature comforts."


In the 16th and 17th centuries, "asteism" designated the witty mockery common among city dwellers. In terms of the contemporary, one thinks of New York cocktail parties, Esquire and Gore Vidal. Through and especially natural process of pejoration, an asteism came to be understood as any "cheap shot." A further linguistic process involved was a reversal of metanalysis (which has given us "an apple" from "a napple" and "an apron" from "a napron").

put salt on the tail of

Originally "put salt on the tales of." In the 17th and 18th centuries, old books had a way of finding themselves undone leaf by leaf to line baking pans. Often while seated at table adding a bit of seasoning to a meat pie, diners were wont to crack a joke at the expense of the savaged author.

brown study, to be in a

The often disconcerting and unpleasant psychological ties between Martin Luther's personal life and his religious convictions have been extensively argued. Revolt against his father very possibly inspired rebellion against religious orthodoxy. In fact, Luther's whole career may be linked to an unceasing struggle to reassign Number One and Number Two. Also well documented is the connection between bowel habits and meditations on evil. Many of the great religious figure's most depressed dark moods and outbursts against both the devil and earthly opponents seem to have come after or during a trip to the W.C. Hence, any foul mood.

gross exaggeration

By analogy with "baker's dozen." about 150. 

We're not sure that Philip Hughes was entirely serious about his etymological researches in this issue.  After all, what can you believe from a Boston intellectual who pumps iron in his spare time?

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