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Books: 'Flying by the Seat of Your Pants' eyes origins of expressions

Published January 20. 2011 05:01PM

Try this brief true-or-false quiz:

1. The common word for a gratuity given in a restaurant is an acronym for To Insure Promptness.

2. A U.S. Civil War general named Joseph Hooker lent his name to a slang word for a prostitute.

3. The term GI, used to describe an American soldier, is a satirical play on the military term "government issue."

If you knew that they are all false, then you likely won't be mesmerized (more on that later) by British author Harry Oliver's new ruminations on the "surprising origins of everyday expressions."

But if you, like many of the rest of us, believed one or all of those interpretations, then pull up a chair.

You may find a laugh or two and a little insight in Oliver's book. "Flying by the Seat of Your Pants" (Perigee Trade Paperback Original, $13.95).

"There are so many phrases we use that make little sense literally, yet we all understand what they mean," says Oliver, who is actually Mark Hanks, a 32-year-old London editor.

The idea for the book came as he and a friend were sitting in a pub over a couple of pints and started speculating about how the expression "Get one's goat" came to mean "to annoy." It turned out that it originated in the last century from the use of goats, which are companionable with horses, to calm them before races. At some point, horse owners began stealing each other's goats and then placing bets on the victim's horse to lose. Obviously, this annoyed horse owners, and others gambling on the event.

Hanks had his explanation.

He also had a seed for a book.

The work delves into about 300 words and expressions from "ace in the hole" to "zounds" (slurring of an old oath called "Christ's wounds").

Among Hanks' favorites, he said in an e-mail interview, are "I'll be a monkey's uncle," which started out as a sarcastic response to Darwin's theory of evolution. Technically, the monkeys would be our uncles, he notes.

Another favorite is "hunky-dory," a term coined by U.S. sailors who frequented a street in the red-light district of Yokohama, Japan, called "Honcho Dori."

What's surprising about the expressions is that even in an era of text-messaging abbreviations, Internet lingo and pop-culture catchphrases, they are still well-known and understood, Hanks adds.

But, as the expedience of expressing amusement with a quick "lol" text message and other electronic-age shorthand gains currency, there is a risk that the expressions will fall into disuse, he acknowledges.

"I'm not sure it matters, though," he adds. "What does matter is being aware of our heritage to have historical knowledge of what language was, makes it easier to understand and appreciate its current state. Also, there are so many fantastic stories behind our expressions."

The word "tip," for example, is not an acronym.

"The truth is that 'tip' is a 13th-century word meaning 'to touch lightly,' " Hanks says. "By the 1600s, its meaning had evolved to describe giving something away with a degree of subtlety or slyness. It is easy to see how this sense carried into the modern meaning of the word, which emerged in the 18th century."

The slang word "hooker" was in use long before a Civil War general by that name arrived on the scene. While its exact origin is uncertain, there are theories that it came from a New York red-light district known as "Corlear's Hook" or the Dutch slang word "huckster," which means "someone who entices." And the practice of calling soldiers "GIs" originated from the term "galvanized iron," which was stamped on the base of military-issue metal buckets, he writes.

When an earlier British version of Hanks' book was published, he received a number of letters questioning his explanations. "Some challenges turned out to be wrong, others were very helpful," he says. "All changes have been made for the American edition. Language is such a puzzle, so I always welcome help."

Hanks counts himself among those with incorrect notions about how some of the expressions originated.

For example, he believed the story about "tip" being an acronym.

He also accepted a common misconception more common in England than the United States about the word "posh" for "luxurious." He thought it originated from the fact that first-class cruise-ship passengers traveling between England and India once preferred to sit "Port Out, Starboard Home" to avoid heavy sunlight.

The book borrowed its title, "Flying by the Seat of Your Pants," from a term that originated in early days of flight when, lacking today's sophisticated instrumentation, pilots relied more on what they saw through the windshield and felt from their seats. The expression has come to refer to people's reactions when they stray into "uncharted territory," Hanks says.

Other interesting expressions include "blue blood" for "aristocrat" or "upper-crust." Families from Castile, in Spain, claimed they were of higher lineage than their Moorish neighbors because the veins of their arms were bluer. It was actually a reflection of the fact that veins are more prominent when viewed through pale skin like that of the Castilians than through darker skin like that of the Moors, the author adds.

The word "bedlam," to mean "chaos," came from the truncated name of a London mental hospital called St. Mary of Bethlehem.

"Green with envy," to describe jealousy, came from an early Greek notion that jealousy actually caused the body to produce green bile, which could then be seen in a person's face.

And English-speakers have a German physician named Friedrich Anton Mesmer to thank for the word "mesmerize." Before medical authorities forced him to exit Vienna, he claimed that he could activate hidden healing powers in patients by hypnotizing them.

"Mesmerize" was originally used to describe the medical use of hypnosis, but now pertains to "anything that seems to have an uncanny hold on our attention," the author says.

(Contact Gary Pakulski at

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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