Oct 13 2017

“Shirttail Relative” and a Mayor of Chicago

Mayor Anton J. Cermak

My own shirttail relative: the late Mayor Anton J. Cermak (third from the left).

The idiom shirttail relative, rarely heard nowadays, refers to someone who is distantly related and often forgotten. Continue reading


Oct 6 2017

Lots of “Chops”

Chops. Excepting for religious prohibitions, nearly every human omnivore loves that meat-and-potato staple of comfort food kitchens, the humble pork chop. Veal chops are even better, and lamb chops are sublime.

But lately this writer has been hearing and seeing the word in a way that has little to do with food and everything to do with flat-out expertise. Continue reading


Jul 8 2017

“Clams”

When a reader recently requested I look into the origin of clams as a slang synonym for “dollar,” this writer thought sure, easy peasy, lemon squeezy. But it turns out there is very little on the web concerning usage of a bivalve to refer to a single greenback (or buck, smacker, simoleon, or ducat, for that matter), with the main origin theories hardly convincing and references thin. Continue reading


Jun 27 2017

To “Buy the Farm”

To many, the figure of speech to buy the farm sounds like a day-dreamy but worthy aspiration from a more gentle, rural America, a time of cows in pasture mooing lazily and sun-drenched fields of crops waving gently.

Actually, though, the expression is extremely grim rather than bucolic. Plain and simple, it’s used to indicate someone is dead. Continue reading


Aug 11 2016

“Peachy Keen”

The idiom peachy keen was originally used to signify that something, someone, some situation, or event were superlative in the coolest, funniest way.

As a grade-schooler in the late 1950s, I remember being delighted by this idiom, sometimes adding jelly bean at the end as an intensifier (Peachy keen, jelly bean!). Continue reading


May 17 2016

“Bury the Hatchet” … “Hatchet Man” … “Hatchet Job” …

The three idiomatic expressions above – one Native American in origin, one Chinese-American, and one associated with the practices of American politics – have absolutely nothing to do with the story of George Washington, his little hatchet, a cherry tree, and not telling lies. Or, for that matter, of the tale of Carrie A. Nation’s hatchet-swinging, tavern-busting antics. Continue reading


May 8 2016

“A Loose Cannon”

This is an idiom that is used a lot by newscasters and commentators  in the course of politics, especially during bouts of great national upheaval and times of potential danger. Like now.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary provides a succinct definition, saying that a loose cannon is “… a dangerously uncontrollable person or thing,” which nails it, all right. Continue reading


Mar 31 2016

“Saved by the Bell!”

Billy: Wow, that was close. Just when I thought the cops would see us, they got distracted by the sound of the bell on Margo’s cat’s collar.

Tom: Yeah, we were saved by the bell. Literally.

The idiom saved by the bell expresses the idea that someone or something is rescued from a dire outcome by a timely occurrence, generally speaking, at the last possible moment, i.e., in the nick of time. A close shave. Continue reading


Dec 15 2015

“Close, But No Cigar!”

I remember plenty of family picnics in the 1950s. After the eating was over the adult male relatives would gather round the picnic table, break out frosty bottles of Schlitz beer, light up cigars, and commence to play penny ante poker.

But seriously, how many people smoke cigars today? Nevertheless, “Close, but no cigar!” is an idiom that still has currency today and is as instantly understood in the way as it has been for more than a century. Continue reading


Oct 30 2015

“Wet Blanket”

How would somebody describe a “wet blanket?” Usually it is a person, although sometimes it can be a thing (such as a philosophy, organization, or an entire community or environment) that can always be counted on to spoil the fun or dampen the enjoyment of others.

In other words, a party-pooper, a spoilsport, a killjoy, a “Debbie Downer,” or a real “pill” (an expression my wife picked up in the course of her East Coast childhood).

Continue reading