Ranting

Cracking A Smile

June 8th, 2017

I’m not doing much of anything this week – spending time with family and friends and various dogs up and down the east coast – our annual odyssey. In blessed relief from angry analysis of current events and the satellite hum of talking heads, conversations on porches over water often turn to simpler things, the questions asked are easier – “Is there any more of that shrimp dip?” – the answers surer and more readily provided – “The dog ate it.”

This week’s column comes from conversations like that.

As published in The Memphis Daily News, June 9, 2017, and in The Memphis News, June 10-16, 2017

(portrait: Big Wig, no arms or legs added)

Big Wig

ORIGINAL, UNIMPORTANT, THOUGHTS

I’m on vacation, trying desperately not to think about anything important. I’ll be home next week – God willing and the Creek don’t rise. This week, I thought I’d share a bit of interesting trivia friends have passed along about origins of some of our common expressions.

Think of it as a welcome vacation from the current.

For instance, politician and diplomat Benjamin Hawkins first penned the one I just used in the early19th century in response to a request to return to Washington from his mission among Native American tribes. Since he capitalized “Creek,” we can assume he was talking about the tribe, not a body of water.

But, then, that might be all wet.

As to things costing an arm and a leg, the original reference was the extra charge portrait painters added for painting arms and legs rather than just head and shoulders or one hand behind the back, etc. As to the Big Wigs who commissioned such portraits with all appendages, that title was derived from the wool wigs they wore – big and fluffy from being baked in hollowed-out bread both to clean the nasty things and rid them of critters.

Women used beeswax to cover blemishes and smooth complexions. A sudden change in expression – cracking a smile – could mar the effect. Sitting too close to the fire could cause you to lose face, while backing away could save face, and getting in someone’s face could earn the admonishment, “Mind your own beeswax.”

In the more modest homes, there were few chairs and formal tables. People ate on boards lowered from the wall and sat on benches or the floor. The head of the household – generally a man, there wasn’t a glass ceiling, there wasn’t even much glass – would sit on the rare chair.

Chair man of the board.

Then, and still, if you wanted to find out what’s really going on, you went to a bar. Politicians dispatched minions to go sip at popular taverns and report back. Go sip turned into gossip, especially if you didn’t watch your p’s and q’s, which, of course, originally referred to being careful about how many pints and quarts you sipped.

Which brings me to an expression from shipping in colonial days.

There being no such thing as commercial fertilizer then, large shipments of manure were common – in dry form because it weighed less. When it got wet in the bottom of the hold, fermentation began, methane gas followed, and it all went boom when somebody went down there with a lantern. After losing several ships and figuring it out, bundles of manure were kept above the water and stamped with an acronym for “Ship High In Transit.”

We all know that acronym today, and all of the above may be a pure example of it.

Beats the ship high in transit out of me.

I’m a Memphian, and since I’m on vacation, I think I’ll go sip now and pay absolutely no attention to my p’s and q’s.

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