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Word Origins

This page is about the origin of words and phases and how they came to be. 

ALL BALLED UP: In the winter in the country regions where horses are used, the roads, especially on hills, are snowploughed very poorly.  Horses going along these roads would collect snow inside their horseshoes.  This formed slowly, but surely, into balls of snow often as high as four inches.  The horse would slip and the driver would sometimes have to get out and knock the snow off the horseshoes.  This is the origin of the expression to be "all balled up." (Judith Beach, Belmont MA, Readers Digest Magazine, March 1930, page 1051)


CROSSWORD: Dec 13, 1913, The Sunday New York World printed a puzzle called a
"word-cross." The puzzle was a success and became a weekly feature. The name
eventually evolved into "crossword."

DIXIELAND:  In the 1930s America was flooded with wildcat money, and counterfeiting was so common that suspicion became fixed on almost all paper money.  Through it all, however, the bank notes of the Citizens' Bank and Trust Company of New Orleans commanded the respect of the whole of the Mississippi Valley and the remainder of the country as well.  In the days before the Civil War, this bank's notes were printed in French as well as English.  The most common denomination ws the ten-dollar note, and it bore the Roman numberal X and the Arabic number 10.  But also in the middle of the back was printed the French word "Dix" amidst the other lettering in French.  The Mississippi River then was the great highway of traffic between New Orleans and the North, and in the argot of the river, when a man was headed down South into Louisiana on a trading expedition, he was going to "come back with a pocket full of Dixes."  From "Dixes" to Dixie" was an easy step.  And the South, particularly Louisana, became known as "the land of Dixies," or more briefly "Dixie Land." (Bert Morehouse, Pasadena, CA, Reader's Digest, March 1930, page 1053)

NOT WORTH A TINKER'S DAM:  In olden times the mender of pots, pans, etc., who was generally an itinerant, used to proclaim his approach by beating on a kettle, while his wagon with pots and pan hanging and knocking together over the rough road produced a "tinkling" sound as he road along, hence he was called a "tinkler".  When the tinkler had a pan to repair and a joint to solder, he would build a wall (a dam) of mud, clay, dough, or the like to retain the melted flux and solder.  After the completion of the repair the retaining wall was torn away and discarded, and so we have "not worth a tinker's dam", as something of absolutely no value.  (William H. Powell, Baltimore, MD, Reader's Digest, March 1930, page 1051)

ON HIS HIGH HORSE: When a knight was fully clothed in his armour and equipped with all his terrible weapons and went parading through the villege, it required a very large horse to support him.  The knight was said to be "On His High Horse", in contract with the smaller horse for hunting.  From this has originated the saying that a person is "On His High Horse" when displaying especial aggressiveness.  ("Life on a Midieval Barony", Rev George E. Taylor, Pemberton, NJ, Reader's Digest, March 1930, page 1052)

STEMWINDER: In an age when speechmaking was a popular entertainment and in which politicans spoke for hours (the speech preceding Lincoln's address at Gettysburg ran longer than two hours, and most of the audience thought it was too short), the term "stemwinder" comes from a speech so long that listeners had to rewind their watch during its course. (Ulysses S. Grant, the Unlikely Hero, Atlas Books 2004, by Michael Korda, page 113)

TARIFF:  When the Moors were masters of Spain, their ships used to lay wait for merchant vessels coming through the Strait of Gibralter bound for Italy, Greece and Egypt, in order to plunder them.  These Moors were no fools and very wisely observed that it did not pay to kill the goose that laid golden eggs, so, to keep up the game as long as possible, they levied a sort of blackmail with a fixed scale of payment on the value of the cargo after the ship had been taken into their harbor of Tarifa -- about 30 miles from Gibraltar.  This originated the word "Tariff", which some people still today believe is a hold up.  (James F. Potter, Montreal, Canada, Reader's Digest, March 1930, page 1052)

TEETOTALERS:  It is said that Richard Turner, an English temperance orator who had an impediment in his speech, would invariably speak of t-t-total abstinence.  In derision, his supporters were nicknamed "Teetotalers". ("Handy Book of Literary Curiosities", Ruth A. Miller, New York City, NY, Reader's Digest, March 1930, page 1052)

THE KING'S ENGLISH:  From the time of the conquest to the 14th century, the language of England was in a very unsettled condition.  Latin seems to have been used in formal written documents, while French was the spoken language of the Court and the nobility.  Saxon was spoken universally by the lower orders, and even this varied so greatly that people of the south could scarcely understand those of the north.  The language of the Court could not, of course, be comprehended by the common people, who knew only Saxon, and so a language suitable for proclamations and edicts was gradually formed, and to distinguish it from mere dialects, it was called "The King's English."  Chaucer and Gower, at this time were very much about the Court and learned this style of speech.  They were the first writers to write in a speech which thence-forward was recognized as The English Language.  ("The King's English" - Earle's Philology of the English Tongue -- J. W. Lyle, Kansas City, Mo., Reader's Digest, March 1930, page 1051)