CAN YOU GUESS THE EXPRESSION?
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THROW IN THE TOWEL
Origin: This expression originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I comes from professional or semi-professional organized boxing. Matches or bouts were fought on a square area (originally round) known as a “boxing ring.” Each boxer had a support staff in one corner. This staff consisted of the manager, and trainer and maybe one other helper. In between rounds, the period of time when the boxers fought, the boxer would go to his corner sit and relax for about a minute. Naturally he’d be hot and sweaty. The trainer would wipe him down with a wet towel to cool and then dry him off. Before the towel, they used to use a sponge. The match would go on for a number of rounds, say 10 or 12 and the boxers would try to knock each other out. If that didn’t happen but one boxer was being beaten up too badly, he or his manager would decide to give up. This was indicated by the manager throwing the towel into the center of the ring. The expression first appeared in print around 1913. Within three years it had become a metaphor for resigning from anything.
Usage: Informal, spoken, general American English. Frequently used in sporting or business or gambling situations
Idiomatic Meaning: To quit, give up or resign
Literal Meaning: To toss or throw a towel onto the floor or ground. The towel could be cloth or as in the illustration it can even be a roll of paper towels
Why is this funny? In the cartoon we see that the cowboy is fed up. Apparently his job was to wipe off the woman in the tub, using paper towels, which are not particularly great for drying off after a bath because you have to use too much of the roll. So the cowboy is throwing in the towel by walking away, and throwing in the towel. Note that the left side of the picture is black and white while the cowboy’s side is in color. This is also a good-bye message from our cartoonist who is telling us that he’s thrown in the towel, by not finishing the illustration with color. He will be leaving Rolls off the Tongue and we wish him well.
Sample sentence: I’m fed up trying to cook for this family with no help from anyone; find another cook, I’m throwing in the towel.
IT’S IN THE BAG
Origin: This expression comes from American baseball. It dates back to the early 20th century, specifically to the old New York Giants (later the San Francisco Giants, since the 1950’s). In 1916, the Giants won 26 games in a row. This is a very difficult thing to do and baseball players are naturally superstitious. As they were winning games they wanted to “ensure” that the streak would continue. At the start of every game a large bag full of the baseballs to be used for the game is brought out onto the playing field. If a ball is hit into the seats as a foul, or out of the park as a home run, or if it just gets too dirty, it will be replaced by a new ball. Every game begins with 72 balls. During their winning streak, the Giants somehow came to believe that if they were ahead in the ninth (last) inning, and someone carried the bag off the field, the Giants would win the game. So if a game is “in the bag” then it’s “certain” the Giants will win. Eventually the expression came to mean anything that you’re very positive about.
Usage: Informal, spoken, general American English. Frequently used in sporting or business or gambling situations when you are predicting a result.
Idiomatic Meaning: A sure thing; a virtual certainty
Literal Meaning: A bag is a soft container usually made of cloth, or paper or plastic. If there is an object in it, then it’s “in the bag.”
Why is this funny? In the cartoon, we see some guys inside large bags, or sacks. This event is called a “Sack Race”. The participants get into the bags and have to jump a certain distance to a finish line. The one who arrives first is the winner. This is a popular activity at large picnics and fairs. In this particular race the audience is betting money on who the winner will be. One person tell the other that racer #5 is sure to win because he had Mexican jumping beans for lunch, and these will assist in his jumping ability. So “it’s in the bag” that the racer who is “in the bag” (#5) will win the race.
Sample sentence: My cousin just started dating the boss’s daughter. You know his promotion is “in the bag.”
BENT OUT OF SHAPE
Origin: This expression has afairly recent origin. 2nd half of the 20th century. Similar to “nose out of joint”, “knickers in a twist” (British), “balls in an uproar” To be “in shape”, that is physically fit goes back to the 1700’s. There is speculation that this expression might be related to a condition known as “the bends”, which is what happens when deep sea divers surface too quickly. Too much nitrogen in the blood causes extreme pain and physical deformity. Others think it’s related to the expression “get bent”. But in my opinion it is akin to the expressions mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, all of which describe emotional states of excitement or being upset.
Usage: Informal, spoken, general American English. Frequently told to someone as a negative command, i.e. “don’t get bent out of shape”
Idiomatic Meaning: To be extremely excited, angry, upset and/or disturbed
Literal Meaning: To be severely physically distorted, as you can see from the picture
Why is this funny? One look at the photo and it’s easy to see that this guy is totally bent out of shape mentally and emotionally, probably because he’s so bent out of shape physically.
Sample sentence: When I told him it was over and I was leaving, he got completely bent out of shape
Hint: Very angry
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PIE IN THE SKY
Origin: This expression came from Joe Hill, an American labor organizer, from a song he wrote in 1911, called The Preacher and the Slave. Hill didn’t like some churches which preached salvation in the afterlife and weren’t concerned with feeding hungry people and workers who hardly made any money and worked in dangerous and miserable conditions. The chorus in which the line appears is:
You will eat bye and bye, In that glorious land in the sky, Work and pray, live on hay, You’ll get pie in the sky when you die
Joe was being sarcastic and mockingly meant that even if we’re hungry here on earth, when we die and (if) we go to heaven (the sky) we’ll have plenty of our favorite foods, such as pie. As an expression all by itself, pie in the sky didn’t come into popular usage until the 40’s, when it was used in an editorial by a California newspaper. The reference was still to “eat pie in the sky”, but eventually “eat” was dropped and pie in the sky came to refer to any unobtainable goal.
Usage: Informal, spoken and written, general, American English
Idiomatic Meaning: Any concept or tangible item that someone wants and it’s not really possible that the person’s wish will come true
Literal Meaning: In the case of this idiom, it depends whether you are spelling P-I-E or P-I. The original idiom has the first spelling, pie being a fruit filled pastry that is in the sky, somehow. If it’s spelled the second way, it’s the Greek letter that is used to represent part of the geometric formula for measuring circles. It stands for an infinite number beginning 3.14159 etc. This formula has to be in the sky, somehow
Why is this funny? The cartoon solves the problem of how PI got into the sky. It’s a cloud formation. Note that the little guy doesn’t recognize the numbers as the infinite number. Rather, he thinks that 3.14 represents his birth date, March 14. He’s convinced that it’s a sign or an omen guaranteeing him success and good fortune. His female friend tells him he’s dreaming and should be more realistic. She knows it’s not real, and that the PI in the sky is just pie in the sky!
Sample sentence: I wish my wife would stop imagining she’ll get the directorship in Paris. It’s just pie in the sky.
TAKE A LOAD OFF YOUR MIND
Origin: If or when we are faced with a large problem or crisis, we often describe the problem or situation as “heavy” or as being a big “weight” on our minds. When the issue is resolved or we get a solution to the problem, the emotional pressure is relieved and it feels as if a weight or “load” has been removed. The meaning of “load” as a metaphor for a burden goes back to the 19th century.
Usage: Informal spoken American and British English
Idiomatic Meaning: Getting relief from a big problem or something you have been worrying about
Literal Meaning: Taking something heavy off or out of your head
Why is this funny? In the cartoon we see a guy who told his doctor he had a head ache from all the stuff that was on his mind. These could be problems, worries, anxieties, whatever. The doctor tells him it was mostly garbage and has removed a large part of it. She show’s him what she has taken out. We see his head is still open but he is conscious and thanks the doctor for the relief. That’s certainly one way to take a load off your mind!
Sample sentence: I’m so happy that my presentation was cancelled; I was really scared; it’s a big load off my mind.
PLAY INTO SOMEONE’S HAND
Origin: This expression has its origin in card playing, most likely Bridge, or Whist. Those games go back to the 16th century. A part of the game’s strategy is to force your opponent to play certain cards. If you manage to do so, then she or he is playing into your hand, giving you an advantage. The expression is often pluralized into playing into someone’s hands. This slight modification has resulted in obscuring the origin of the meaning, making people think of a body part, when actually in card games your hand, refers to the cards you are holding. This meaning goes all the way back to the 16th century as well.
Usage: Formal or informal, spoken, possibly written general British and American English. Often found in business, sports, military strategy, anything involving competition.
Idiomatic Meaning: To do what someone was expecting, giving that person an advantage;to be the victim of someone’s scheme or trap
Literal Meaning: Unless a giant is involved, it’s difficult to imagine a literal meaning for this expression. It means to engage a some form of game or sport and accidentally land in or on someone else’s hand
Why is this funny? In the cartoon we have the situation described in the literal meaning above. There is a baseball player about to catch a ball and fall off a cliff at the same time. He is about to fall into the hands of a giant, whose hand is extended and ready to catch to ball player. We can surmise that this is what the giant had planned, that is to catch the ball player. The player didn’t realize he was being set up. He played into the giant’s hand by playing into the giant’s hand.
Sample sentence: If you break off your engagement, you’ll be playing right into the hands of her mother, who doesn’t want her to marry you.
PULLING SOMEONE’S LEG
Origin: This expression appears to be Scottish in origin, going back to the early 20t century. When first used it meant to make a fool of someone, sometimes by actual cheating. It did not have the easy-going sense that it has today. It might have come from the idea that by tripping someone, that is, pulling their leg out from under, you can make them look foolish. There is another theory that the expression might have something to do with public hangings. Children would pull on the legs of hanging victims to get things to fall out of their pockets. Another proposed theory is that friends of the condemned person would pull on his legs to make the execution quicker.
Usage: Informal spoken and written British and American general English
Idiomatic Meaning: To tease or make fun of someone in a good-natured way
Literal Meaning: As the cartoon shows, this expression simply means to grab someone’s leg and move it away, or pull it away, from the rest of their body.
Why is this funny? In the cartoon, we have a case of extreme pulling. The poor frog or toad is actually being towed by its leg. Why? First of all, note the pun that the toad is being towed, in fact, by another toad. A toad is the name for a type of frog that lives on land. The sign clearly states that croaking is not allowed. Croaking is the distinctive sound that toads make. In slang, to croak means to die. This is why the brown toad is angry and objecting to being towed by a toad. It didn’t die, it didn’t croak. The toad in the truck, of course, knows this. He’s just teasing or pulling the other toad’s leg, by pulling its leg!
Sample sentence: There’s no way I just won the lottery. You’ve got to be pulling my leg.
got to be pulling my leg.
SHOOTING YOUR MOUTH OFF
Origin: The origins of this expression are not clear. It was first recorded in the mid 19th century, most likely in the American west. The word “shoot” itself is very old, going back to Germanic language roots, meaning to throw or project. Of course it came to refer to guns, but metaphorically it’s not a big leap to speech. I thought it might be related to “shoot the breeze” which has the same sense of verbal shooting, but that didn’t appear until the mid 20th century, a hundred years later. Since you can damage someone by shooting a gun, the relationship to hurting someone with your words is pretty obvious.
Usage: Informal, spoken, general American and British English
Idiomatic Meaning: To boast, exaggerate, talk indiscreetly, make reckless statements; talking too much in a loud and uncontrolled way; tell secrets; talk without thinking
Literal Meaning: The literal meaning off this expression is difficult to imagine. It means to take a gun, aim it at your mouth and then shoot it off. The question remains, are you shooting off a gun or a mouth? Originally, it was a phrasal verb coming from “shoot off”, but it is subject to interpretation and the “off” could refer to one’s own mouth, I suppose.
Why is this funny? This expression could be related to “cutting off your nose to spite your face,” since both expressions result in being “defaced”, that is, losing one or more parts of one’s face, much as the head of a statue might lose parts from wear and tear and weathering. But in fact the cartoon shows a guy shooting off his mouth figuratively with his swearing, bragging, etc. But then he literally shoots off his mouth, accidentally, as indicated by the word “Oops!” So he shot off his mouth when he shot off his mouth.
Sample sentence: Don’t pay any attention to that loudmouth. He’s always “shooting off his mouth” about how great he is.
SKATING ON THIN ICE
Origin: The word “skate” goes back to the Dutch language in the 17th century. This is not surprising as the Dutch were well known for skating and they were early colonizers in North America. Skating on thin ice is a common sense phrase making use of the verb. Children were no doubt warned not to do that in Holland and all other countries where skating was popular. Metaphoric usage probably followed shortly thereafter.
Usage: Formal and informal, spoken and written, general British and American English
Idiomatic Meaning: Knowingly engaging in a dangerous or risky activity
Literal Meaning: Ice skating is a very old sport. These days there are ice skating rinks where they manufacture ice, but people still do skate on natural ice and have done so for thousands of years. People skate on lakes or ponds or other bodies of water. The water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius. The ice usually needs to be frozen for several days before it is safe to skate on it. The ice needs to be thick and strong enough to support the weight of many human skaters. It it’s too thin it will crack, break and the skater(s) will fall in the icy water. Skating on thin ice is not smart and unnecessarily dangerous.
Why is this funny? When people literally skate on thin ice, they may be unaware of how dangerous or risky their behavior is. However, sometimes, as the cartoon shows there is a warning sign. If a skater chooses to ignore the warning, she or he does it at her or his own risk. In the cartoon, because the guy is showing off to the girl, he’s skating on thin ice by skating on thin ice. This story could have a monstrous ending!
Sample sentence: The accountant was skating on thin ice when she changed the numbers because the IRS auditors were coming.