I included that video because I have always enjoyed the music of ABBA, and when I went looking for a video that had something to do with the phrase ‘head over heels’, it was – in my estimation – better than some of the other choices.
I’ve been thinking of recording my thoughts in reference to old phrases – that have long ago lost their meaning but we continue to use them – and today seems like a good day to touch on the subject. I’ll only touch on the subject because it would take weeks to try to discuss all the phrases that fit my definition.
Let’s begin with ‘head over heels’. At no time during the video did we see anyone who was not head over heels. If I’m not mistaken, unless a person is in the middle of a cartwheel, or doing a hand stand, he or she is always head over heels. The head is normally on top and the heels are on the bottom. So, what’s the big deal with the phrase?
An English web site I found, The Phrase Finder states that the phrase is based on a person being so excited that he or she is doing cartwheels. To my way of thinking, the phrase would make more sense if it was ‘heels over head’. But, that’s just me.
If you have a few hours, check out that web site. It contains plausible explanations for thousands of phrases. However, I think it missed the boat on at least one – ‘basket case’.
I’ve always considered a ‘basket case’ to be a person who has lost control; he or she is either ‘off his rocker’ – insane or crazy – or emotionally distraught. However, neither of those instances are listed. Instead, the author of the site only refers to soldiers who have lost limbs in wars and must be carried around in baskets.
Another phrase I found interesting is to ‘bone up on’ – meaning to study the subject in preparation for a test of some sort. The web site offers two explanations. The second, which is discounted because the phrase preceded this explanation, credits the writings of Henry George Bohn. Henry lived from 1796 to 1884 and perhaps created the first cliff notes.
The first explanation is based on the fact that bones were once used to polish leather. As near as I can figure, a person took a beef bone and rubbed it on the leather until a shine appeared. Because the phrase was found in published works long before the birth of Henry G. Bohn, the bone on leather is given more credence.
Another phrase I found interesting was ‘bated breath.’ I recently corrected someone who had written it as ‘baited’ breath. I had to credit Mork from Ork for catching the mistake. Robin Williams had used the phrase ‘worm on tongue’ as his translation of ‘bated breath.’ In case you’re wondering, bated is short for abated; one’s breath is temporarily halted in anticipation of something.
‘Cut the mustard’ reminded me of ‘cutting the cheese’ but has a totally different origin. As far back as 1672, mustard was seen as a mark of a person’s zest and energy. If we then think of the word ‘cut’ in terms of ‘cutting a fine figure’ we can see that ‘cutting the mustard’ was simply making a good impression.
Now, let’s look at crocodile tears. According to scientists, crocodiles have tear ducts that keep their eyes moistened, but they do not cry. However, some people long ago watched as crocodiles killed and devoured their prey… and insisted they saw tears in the eyes of the beasts. Thus, crocodile tears came to mean insincere crying.
Finally, consider how a crocodile kills its prey. It begins by clutching the unfortunate dinner guest in its massive jaws and then begins turning over and over – heels over head – head over heels – heels over head – and so on until the main course drowns.
Perhaps all of these old phrases are connected in some way. We should recognize that following the feast, the crocodile is probably as happy as a clam, is on cloud nine, and in seventh heaven.
While you think about all those things, I’ll just sit here in the catbird seat until you have another think coming.