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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: To coin a phrase

by Brenda Looper | February 17, 2021 at 3:44 a.m.
Brenda Looper

As I sit here Monday waiting for the next rejiggering of my grocery delivery (at this moment it's supposed to be by 3:15 p.m.; it was originally between 9 and 11 a.m.) and tucked under an electric blanket cranked to its highest setting, my mind turns again to phrases. And not just because my oldest brother was a little irritated than his suggestion didn't make it into last week's column.

Now I've upset the family dynamics. He might not save me some bass the next time he has enough to put some aside in the freezer for me, and he knows how much I love bass.

Mitch wanted to know where a phrase our fisherman dad used might have come from. There were a few he suggested, but only one that was acceptable for publication in a family newspaper.

Yeah, like your dad never worked blue.

The phrase at question was "mess with the bull, you get the horns." Unfortunately, as shown in last week's column, tracking the origin of phrases is much harder than for individual words. The listserv for the American Dialect Society pondered this one in 2010, but could find nothing conclusive (and one anecdote from someone who'd been in the Army around 1961 was far bluer than the version Daddy used). We know it was firmly in place by the time "The Breakfast Club" (1985) was filmed; one of the more famous lines from that movie came from Mr. Vernon, the assistant principal overseeing Saturday detention: "Don't mess with the bull, young man. You'll get the horns."

There was a report of a slightly different phrase in 1967 in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, but again, not the origin. Who knows who originated the phrase, where, and when? I don't know, but I'd venture to guess that person probably had a few extra holes in his body thanks to a run-in with a ticked-off bull.

(And now that grocery delivery estimate is 4:15. Gosh, I love winter.)

My boss wanted to know the origin of "crazy as a Bessie bug," and that I can do, sort of. The Phrase Finder notes that the expression (sometimes using Betsy instead of Bessie) is common in the South, but especially in Arkansas and Kentucky. The Old Farmer's Almanac says Bessie bug "refers to the 1.5-inch-long, shiny black beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus), also called a patent leather beetle, horn beetle, horned passalus, or pinch bug. ... It is considered harmless and beneficial, feeding on rotting wood."

The phrase, it says, "may refer to the sounds that these insects make--at least 17 different types! As a mode of defense, adults will make a noise when disturbed (some say that it sounds like they are saying 'Bessie'), created by rubbing parts of their hind wings against their abdomen."

The Word Detective (no fan of bugs) notes that the phrase has been around since at least the 19th century and evoked the similar phrase, "crazy as a bedbug," but said, "While bedbugs do their best to hide from human eyes and lurk in the nooks and crannies of furniture, etc., Bessie bugs wander around in plain sight looking for rotting logs to eat."

Such behavior, and with all those different sounds, seems at least a bit crazy to me, who is not averse to smushing bugs that should not be in the house.

Sandra Withers wondered about "Hell's bells." The Phrase Finder reports that it's been in use in the UK and U.S. since at least the 19th century, with the earliest example in print in a British sporting newspaper in 1840. By the early 20th century, it was in common use. Its origin, though, is murky, and is most likely just an example of reduplication/rhyming, which is also likely true with "bee's knees," which a colleague from my college days at KASU-FM, Mark A. Smith, now the station manager, puzzled about.

Mark also was curious about "the cat's pajamas." I couldn't resist being snarky when I replied, "I wouldn't recommend putting pajamas on cats unless your insurance is fully paid up." But, yeah, unless your cat is hairless and/or likes being dressed, it's safer to just let that feline be. Let my arms be a cautionary tale.

"The cat's pajamas" appears to have found purchase in the U.S. flapper culture of the 1920s. Said Phrase Finder: "In the 1920s the urban east-coast cities of the USA were a breeding ground for new and wacky modes of expression. The bright young things of the flapper era wanted to throw off anything old or stuffy in fashion, music and language. Many new, and for the most part nonsense, animal-related expressions were coined to denote excellence. These included the snake's hips, the kipper's knickers, the monkey's eyebrows and so on. Of the many such phrases, only the bee's knees and the cat's pajamas remain in regular use."

The earliest printed reference found was in 1918 in a South Carolina newspaper, so it was in at least limited use a little before the '20s, when "cat" was used as flapper slang for a fashionable young woman.

Oh, those young 'uns, always making up weird phrases. Next they'll be having us talking about our on-fleek baes being the GOAT. No, I have no idea what I just said. (Sigh. Now we're looking at sometime Wednesday for groceries. If I keep saying I love winter, maybe it will even be Wednesday this week.)


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at Email her at


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