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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Turn of phrase

by Brenda Looper | February 10, 2021 at 4:12 a.m.
Brenda Looper

There are many times I curse Facebook and the former friend who got me to finally sign up for it, but there are just as many times that it's brought me laughs, comfort and column ideas.

Facebook friend and frequent guest writer Randal Berry has been after me for a while to write about the origins of phrases. Considering what's going on in D.C. this week, I can't think of a better time than now for something light.

One of the many phrases Randal wondered about was "curiosity killed the cat," meaning that sticking your nose in some things could be dangerous. The Phrase Finder website noted, "The 'killed the cat' proverb originated as 'care killed the cat.' By 'care' the coiner of the expression meant 'worry/sorrow' rather than our more usual contemporary 'look after/provide for' meaning." That expression was first recorded in Ben Jonson's "Every Man in His Humour" in 1598, and William Shakespeare quickly appropriated it for "Much Ado About Nothing." That form was still widely in use in 1898 in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, but the "curiosity" version had made a few appearances, beginning with an Irish newspaper in 1868. By 1909 and O. Henry's short story "Schools and Schools," that version had become more widespread.

Why or when the idiom changed is a mystery. Sort of like felines.

Randal also wondered about "cat's got your tongue." My response at the time: "Of all the things my dearly departed furry one left his mark on, I'm happy to say my tongue wasn't one of them. Just a cursory look at that idiom's origin makes he happy he never did."

Why, you ask? Because, according to Grammarly, "The English Navy used to use a whip called 'Cat-o'-nine-tails' for flogging. The pain was so severe that it caused the victim to stay quiet for a long time. Another possible source could be from ancient Egypt, where liars' and blasphemers' tongues were cut out and fed to the cats." (Ew.) Phrase Finder pooh-poohs those theories, saying there's no evidence for them and that the origin is unknown. Other sites concurred on the unknown origins.

That's the way it is with many phrases. While it's easier to pinpoint when a certain word came into being, whether through evolution or invention, it's a little more difficult with phrases, which can often have many variants. Many times we have hazy, possibly apocryphal, tales about how they came about, such as the story about "tight as Dick's hatband," which both reader Lynda Horn and editorial page editor David Barham wondered about.

Lynda wrote: "I would love to know just who Dick is, and why his hatband is so tight. I believe I first heard this from my grandmother; I almost never hear it anymore, so I suspect it has faded into antiquity and irrelevancy."

One story bandied about as the origin of the phrase, meaning absurd or peculiar, refers to "Richard Cromwell, the son of Oliver Cromwell, who briefly took over as Lord Protector of England in 1658 after his father's death," according to World Wide Words. "Alas, he was not the man his father was. He was too amiable, thrust into a position of responsibility at a time of national crisis, and he was unable to reconcile the various factions in the military and Parliament. He was deposed after eight months. The hatband was supposed to be a reference to the crown of England, something he found too tight to wear with comfort. Nice story, but if true, we would expect to find an example of its use popping up well before Francis Grose mentioned it in 1796."

All that seems certain is that the saying made it to the South, where it usually denotes extreme tightness or stinginess.

Another phrase popular in the South similarly has a murky back story. Sharon Scott has heard "as drunk as Cooter Brown" all over the state, and wondered if it was just local to Arkansas. I found lots of entries on this particular saying, so it's not just here. The Old Farmer's Almanac reported the following story from Cooter Brown's Tavern & Oyster Bar in New Orleans: "Cooter Brown lived along the Mason-Dixon line at the time of the Civil War. He had family on both sides, and, not wishing to be drafted by either the North or the South, he decided to get drunk--and stay drunk--so that he wouldn't have to fight in the war."

It's a Southern Thing recounted that and another story from Jonathan Green's "The Stories of Slang": "Cooter was living in a shack in Louisiana when the Civil War came. He was biracial (half-Cherokee, half-Black), but he emphasized his Cherokee heritage so he could be free--but that meant he could be drafted when the war came. So, much like the first version of the tale, he decided to stay drunk so he could avoid fighting. But when the war was over, he stayed drunk, and his house burned down, but no one could find his remains. Legend has it ... there was so much alcohol in his body that he just evaporated in the fire."

However the phrase came about, its usage continues far past any hangovers or second thoughts Cooter might have had about his binges.

Is it possible to get drunk on chocolate? Asking for a friend.

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Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com.

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