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.
PULL OUT ALL THE STOPS
Origin: This expression originates from a mechanism found on pipe organs. These organs have air pumped through the pipes to create the sound. The volume can be regulated by controlling the flow of air. This regulating device is called a “stop”. When you pull out the stop, it increases air flow and volume. When you “pull out all the stops” you have maximum volume. The literal definition goes back to the 16th century. Three hundred years later the metaphoric use appeared in print, referring to a particular Englishman as “narrow toned” and suggesting it would be good to pull out his stops.
Usage: Formal and informal, spoken and written, general British and American English
Idiomatic Meaning: Do whatever it takes to succeed
Literal Meaning: Pulling out all the stops on a pipe organ increases the volume; however “stops” could refer to anything called a stop, even a stop sign.
Why is this funny? In the cartoon, we see a guy who for some reason has decided that stop signs don’t belong in a desert, perhaps because they impede speed. This is also shown by the words “beep beep” in the background which viewers may well recognize as the sounds made by the Road-Rrunner, a famous cartoon character known for running around at top speed. The guy seems to be talking to himself saying that nothing will prevent him from completing his task. He wants to “pull out all stops” so that he can pull out all the stops. Of course, he runs into a policeman who doesn’t appear to be too happy with what the guy is doing. The stop signs were put there to slow people down and it’s against the law to remove them.
Sample sentence: Nothing is going to stop me from winning the song-writing contest; I’m “pulling out all stops” to do it.
Origin: Deserts is a very old English word, dating back to the 13th century. It has nothing to do with burning sands, camels or cactus plants, except that it’s spelled with one S. It is pronounced as if it had two SS’s but the word has nothing to do with pudding or strawberry shortcake. It’s a noun that is no longer used anywhere in the English language except in this idiom, joined to the word just. In the expression just is short for justified.
Usage: Spelled with one S, though pronounced as if it had two SS’s. Formal and informal, spoken and written, general British and American English. Usually has a negative connotation
Idiomatic Meaning: Something received as a consequence of something done, good or bad
Literal Meaning: Because of the confusion of an older and modern spelling as well a older and modern pronunciation, if one is being literal, there could be two other meanings. Based on the spelling it could be nothing but dry, arid land; based on pronunciation it could mean nothing but the last sweet course of a meal, i.e. pudding in the British English sense.
Why is this funny? In the cartoon we see both meanings being illustrated. The waiter lets us know that the customer has been behaving badly and abusing the wait staff. As a consequence his dessert is his just desert
Sample sentence: When the building collapses from lack of maintenance, the landlord will finally get his just deserts.
SCRAPE THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
Origin: This is an American English expression dating back to the time before there was refrigeration, when food was stored in barrels. When supplies ran low the only to get to the food at the bottom was to scrape it off.
Usage: Informal, spoken, general American English though now it’s used throughout the English speaking world
Idiomatic Meaning: Using the worst ideas, things or people to solve a problem because there’s nothing else available
Literal Meaning: Taking a large knife or spoon and scarping the dregs off the bottom of a barrel
Why is this funny? This cartoon allows us to see inside the mind of our left-handed cartoonist Bill Greenfield. He tells us that he has run out of ideas so he draws some guy diving head first into a large metaphoric barrel to try to find some ideas to draw for the Rolls of the Tongue series.
Sample sentence: That dress designer must really have scraped the bottom of the barrel when he came up with that outfit.
Origin: The English are big fish eaters. They like it both fresh as well as smoked. They’ve been eating both forms for as long as they have been catching fish. The origin of the phrase’s meaning to produce a false clue to misdirect an investigation is debatable. One theory is that red herrings were used as a training exercise for hunting dogs. They would deliberately create false scents using the smelly fish to force the dogs to concentrate on the animal being hunted rather than any old smell. Another theory is that back in the 17th century a dying minister left his servant a trunk with a note that inside was something that would make him drink. The servant was expecting a bottle of rum perhaps, but instead, only found a red, smoked herring. This even was widely reported and might also be the origin of the expression.
Usage: Spoken and written general British and American English. Frequently used in legal investigations
Idiomatic Meaning: A deliberate misleading and diverting of attention from the real issue.
Literal Meaning: An actual fish called a herring. It is not red because its angry or passionate. It gets a red color from being smoked. It is not red while it is alive and swimming
Why is this funny? The red herring in the cartoon is alive and well and not smoked. The illustration refers to the situation in the movie The Wizard of Oz. The image that the characters see is a red herring, a deliberate illusion created by the faker behind the curtain. In the movie a dog discovers the real guy; in the cartoon, a little fish reveals the fake wizard. We have both meanings active here – the red herring was a true red herring.
Sample sentence: The lawyer for the defense set up a lot of red herrings, to try to confuse the jury.
FIT AS A FIDDLE
Origin: My instincts tell me that this expression exists because of the alliteration (fit and fiddle both start with the letter F) There is something about the English language and perhaps all languages which makes it pleasant to rhyme words and also to use alliterations. Cockney rhyming slang is a perfect example of this. “Fit as a fiddle” goes back to the early 17th century when it first appeared in print. Verbally it could be a lot older. However in those days “fit” did not mean “healthy”. Rather it came from the idea of something being the correct size, also to be suitable for some purpose. There is also the expression “fine as a fiddle.” Eventually “fit” replaced “fine” probably because the T had a closer sound to the D, though “fine as a fiddle” is still in use. By the way, the Roman goddess of joy was Vitula. There is speculation that the word “fiddle” might be derived from her.
Usage: Informal, spoken and written general British and American English
Idiomatic Meaning: To be healthy; to be in good physical and mental condition.
Literal Meaning: Violins can be in good and bad shape just as any other object. If they are taken care of they will be fit or suitable to play. However, as we see in the cartoon, this particular fiddle has been working out, exercising and is in good physical shape!
Why is this funny? Normally the expression is only a metaphor however in the cartoon universe anything can happen. Cows can jump over moons; dishes can run away with spoons; and blind mice can walk around with canes. As the illustration shows all of these nursery rhyme characters have suffered some injury, except for the violin, or fiddle. Even the banged up and bandaged cat can’t understand why the fiddle is so healthy. We can also see that the fiddle has been exercising by the barbells it is lifting. We see both meanings of the idiom here. The fit fiddle is “fit as a fiddle!”
Sample sentence: Now that I’ve recovered from my hernia operation, I feel “fit as a fiddle”
GOODY TWO SHOES
Origin: This expression comes from the title of a nursery tale entitled The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, which was published in the mid-18th century. The story was possibly written by Oliver Goldsmith. The story similar to the tale of Cinderella; the moral is that if you act correctly and with virtue, you will be rewarded. “Goody Two-Shoes” is the name given to a poor orphan - Margery Meanwell. She is so poor that she only owns one shoe. She is so happy when a rich man gives her a complete pair that she keeps repeating that she now has ‘two shoes’. This is how she got her name. Eventually by working hard she does well and marries a wealthy widower. This story remained popular down through the centuries. Then around the beginning of the 20th century people who acted in a self-righteous way or super well-behaved were called “goody-goodie”. It’s not surprising that Goody Two Shoes became intertwined with someone who was considered a goody-goody. And that’s the usage that exists to this day.
Usage: Informal, spoken, general American and British English; considered to be an old fashioned idiom. It is generally considered derogatory or insulting
Idiomatic Meaning: Someone who thinks and acts as if he or she was better than everyone else; acting self-righteously, that is convinced they are right about everything and being morally superior to others
Literal Meaning: Other than the name of the character in the nursery tale, the name could be any goody-goody type of person who owns two shoes.
Why is this funny? In the illustration we see a combination of the literal and idiomatic meanings. This dorky-looking guy with two shoes is acting in a very self-righteous manner and driving everyone else crazy but his speech and actions
Sample sentence: At church Mary was a total Goody Two Shoes; she would not let anyone curse or swear in her presence. But at night, at the bar, it was a different story.
Origin: The origin of the expression is self-evident. It refers to the parts of the car covering the four wheels. There are four fenders and each one could be bent in an accident. The appeal of the term is the rhyming factor – bender rhymes with fender, making it fun to say. The term most likely originated during the 1960’s. Of somewhat greater interest is the word “fender itself. It goes all the way back to the 13th century. It is actually a shortening of the word “defender,” an attachment added to boats, fireplaces and eventually to cars to protect their parts from damage. The use of the word with automobiles goes back to the early 20th century. “Fender” was also the family name of an electric guitar manufacturer that developed very popular guitars. They have a very recognizable shape. They are still made today and played by many rock musicians.
Usage: Informal, spoken, general American and British English
Idiomatic Meaning: A minor collision between automobiles. It may or may not actually involve the fender
Literal Meaning: The expression can refer either to the fender of an automobile being bent out of shape or to a Fender guitar being bent out of shape for some reason.
Why is this funny? We have a major double meaning going on here. It’s not clear which fender was bent. In fact, looking at the illustration we see that both the car’s fender as well as the recognizable fender guitar have been bent as a result of the collision.
Sample sentence: Even though I only had a small fender bender, my auto insurance rate went up anyway
RACK MY BRAINS
Origin: The rack was an instrument of torture in the middle ages. The victim was placed on a table and their arms and legs were attached to pulleys which pulled in opposite directions, stretching and eventually, tearing the victim apart. The word “rack” became a verb meaning to cause suffering and pain. The verb itself goes back in usage to the 16th and 17th centuries, where it’s found in Shakespeare and other writings. So if your brain is being tortured by straining to remember or understand something, it makes sense to say you are torturing or racking your brain.
Usage: Formal and informal, spoken and written, general British and American English. There is some debate as to the correct spelling and some dictionaries accept both “rack” and “wrack” as correct.
Idiomatic Meaning: To put a great effort into remembering or understanding something
Literal Meaning: To take your own or others’ brains and put them on a rack. A rack may also refer to shelves. Therefore, you are either placing your brains on some shelves or on a torture device.
Why is this funny? In the cartoon we see a mad scientist with his assistant Igor. They have been conducting some sort of experiments, but now they have a surplus of brains. The scientist has been struggling to figure out what to do with all the extra brains. So far he has had Igor put them on a rack. So we can say that the scientist has been RACKING HIS BRAINS while he’s been RACKING HIS BRAINS.
Sample sentence: Since my old car stopped running, I’ve been RACKING MY BRAINS whether to sell it or donate it to a charity that will come and remove it for free.