What The Dickens! 7 Popular Sayings & How They Originated

You May Think The Saying “What The Dickens” Is Related To Novelist Charles Dickens (It’s Not.)

7 Famous Phrases And How They Came About.

Charles (Not “what the”) Dickens

Almost everyone uses slang or colloquial speech without ever thinking how did the words in the phrase come together?

Monumental arguments have ensued over simple sayings and many times there is no correct answer, merely an educated supposition.

The Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins Volume II by William and Mary Morris (1967) Harper & Row, contains what the authors believe to be the origins of hundreds of sayings. Here are seven of them. The words in italics are from the Morris’s book.

the real McCoy

The real McCoy” is heard a lot in those gangster films of the 30s and 40s. A saying that is still used today, the real McCoy has controversial origins.

The Real McCoy? Charles “Kid” McCoy

The authors have what I believe to be the correct information, as I read essentially the same explanation in a book from the 1920s. But the saying goes back to the mid-19th century predating the boxer who popularized the saying.

…the suggestion has been made that the first real McCoy was one of the clan that attained fame by their feuds with the Hatfields. However there seems to be no connection between the feuding McCoys and the popular slang phrase, the real McCoy. The phrase seems rather to have come from the jargon  of prize-fighting around the turn of the century. At that time it was a fairly common practice for an aspiring young pugilist to adopt the name of a more famous fighter – at least so long as he confined his fighting to the tank-town circuit where deceptions of this sort were at least as common as thrown fights. Surely the most celebrated battler ever to adopt another fighter’s name was- and is- Jack Dempsey. Dempseys’ real name was William Harrison Dempsey, but for ring purposes he adopted Jack Dempsey, which had long been famous in ring circles as the sobriquet of Jack “The Nonpareil” Dempsey.

During the period from 1890 to 1900 the world’s welterweight champion was Kid McCoy, whose reputation inspired so many imitators that he eventually had to bill himself as Kid “The Real” McCoy. The phrase became a popular underworld synonym  for “genuine” and now has become a very common slang expression.

what the dickens
“What the dickens” is not used as much as other terms of surprise and vexation. Probably because cursing proliferates in our profanity-laced society so you’ll hear “what the #$&#” (fill in your word of choice). It is sometimes heard from those who abstain from foul language, like your Uncle Horatio, the vicar.

This expression has nothing whatever to do with the famous English novelist. It’s simply a euphemism for “”what the devil!” In fact the expression was common centuries before Charles Dickens was born, having been used by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act II, scene 2): “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is.”

raining cats and dogs
If tornado’s frequently lifted animals up into the air and then redeposited them on the ground during storms, maybe this saying would make sense. Otherwise it seems very strange. The explanation seems rational.

This expression goes back many hundreds of years to the Dark Ages when people believed in all sorts of ghosts, goblins and witches, and even thought that animals, like cats and dogs, had magical powers. The cat was especially thought by sailors to have a lot to do with storms, and the witches that were believed to ride in the storms were often pictured as black cats.

Dogs and wolves were symbols of winds and the Norse storm god Odin was often pictured surrounded by dogs and wolves. So when a particularly violent rainstorm came along, people would say that it’s raining cats and dogs – with the cats symbolizing the rain and thr dogs representing the wind and storm.

get your goat
Words still commonly heard with a simple explanation.

This expression, meaning “to become fretful or irritated because of the actions of another,” comes from the race tracks of an earlier generation. It used to be fairly common practice to stable a goat with a thoroughbred, the theory being that the goat’s presence would help keep the high-strung nag to keep its composure. If the goat were stolen the night before a big race, the horse might be expected to lose its poise and blow the race.

can’t hold a candle to
A saying that on the surface seems easy to figure out, but it’s not.

Many people seem to think that the phrase can’t (or doesn’t ) hold a candle to, meaning that there is no comparison between two things, has something to do with a method of checking eggs.

This expression has nothing to do with the method of testing the freshness of eggs by holding them before a candle’s flame. Instead it goes back to Shakespeare’s time, before there was any such thing  as street lighting. In those days a person returning home from a tavern or theater would be accompanied by a linkboy who carried a torch or candle. Those linkboys were considered very inferior beings, so to say that Tom couldn’t hold a candle to Harry meant that Tom was very much inferior to Harry.

by hook or by crook
If you have ever seen Patrick McGoohan’s television masterpiece The Prisoner, this saying is in the introduction of almost every episode. I always thought it sounded very British.

When a person needs something desperately, he will manage to obtain it by hook or by crook. In doing so, he is figuratively following the example of the peasants of feudal times who, though in dire need of firewood, were allowed only to take those tree branches which hung low enough to be pulled down or cut off by hook or by crook.

start from scratch
This is one of those expressions that comes into use frequently and you probably never gave a thought about it.

The expression start from scratch comes from the practice of giving handicaps to some competitors in racing. A contestant who starts from scratch (literally a line scratched on to the turf or gravel) is the one who runs with no special advantages, while those with handicaps may be starting some distance down the track toward the goal.

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