03 February 2023

Ellis Millsaps: Return of the Cranky English Major, Part Two

 I wrote the first part of this piece back in May and I said this part two  was coming. OK so I finally got around to it.

 I started last time with an analysis of how “cool,” meaning something positive, became a widespread American idiom, but I later realized I should have started with OK. Cool has its origin between the world wars but OK dates from the 1840s and along with Coca Cola is one of the two most widely understood and used English terms in the world,( Both are americanisms.) 

OK is generally understood to have come from the Martin van Buren presidential campaign, its nickname for its candidate being Old Kinderhook which his supporters shortened to OK. How it universally came to mean “yes I see” is a mystery as far as I can see.

 It appears to be a rare instance of slang with a political origin. We have some but they usually die with the political movement which spawned them, eg, “rino” and “own the libs”. Another notable exception is” the chance of a snowball in hell'' which arose from a column in the Detroit Free Press in the 1880s talking about a Republican’s chance of winning in the South.

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We're more likely to take our long-term additions to the popular lexicon from entertainment and scientific/technological advances.

 From television we got “doh!” from Homer Simpson and a long drawn-out “oh man” from his boy Bart. “Jump the shark'' comes from an episode of Happy Days in which the Fonz literally jumps over a shark on water skis. We still hear it occasionally for something off the wall but it has somewhat been replaced by the commonly heard “down a rabbit hole,” which comes from Alice in Wonderland.  We get “in one fell swoop” from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Some expressions from American cinema are with us to stay because they are useful and otherwise not so evocatively expressed. I'm thinking primarily of “gaslighting” and “Groundhog Day”. I'm sure there are others that haven't occurred to me.

From fairly recent science we get ”laser focus” and “gone viral”, and while “spot on” has been around for some time, especially in Britain, it only became widespread here after a character in a 2013 episode of The Wire used it.

“Whack a mole” and “do not pass go” are widely understood and come from tabletop games. Sports provide us with a legion of expressions: punt, hail Mary, slam dunk. The popular expression “game changer” originated in a sports column a 1982 Detroit Free Press column talking about hockey.

 I can't find out where “who knew that was actually a thing” originated but I think it's useful and here to stay.

Cooking gives us two expressions for things which are not complicated: “easy as pie” and “a piece of cake”. “Half baked” has been around since the 1600s but the most memorable incident of its use for me is in The Graduate when Benjamin's prospective father-in-law tells him some idea of his sounds half baked and Dustin Hoffman replies, “Oh no sir. It's fully baked.”

 Surprisingly I can't think of any popular expression that comes from rock and roll.

One of my favorites from sports is “a can of corn” which refers to an easy to catch routine fly ball. I was pleased to discover that the expression came about very early in baseball history and comes from the fact that grocers used to have things on high shelves which they couldn't reach without a ladder so they used a long stick with a hook to pull off a can which they would catch in their aprons. 

Ellis "Da" Millsaps is a recovering Attorney but has worn many hats over the years: father, bus boy, stand-up comedian, novelist, wiffle ball player, rock'n'roll band manager, and at one time wrote a popular and funny column for The Covington News. A Fannin Co. mountain boy originally, Mr. Millsaps now stays at the mill village of Porterdale by way of 20 years in Mansfield. Usually funny and at times irreverent and subversive, he leans left in his political philosophy but can always be counted on for a pretty darn good write-up. The Chronicles are proud to have him involved...