Gadzooks! The Surprising Sources of Great Sayings
WHEN EXACTLY do “the cows come home”? Who was the first person to “steal someone’s thunder”? English is full of colorful expressions that have lost the connection to their delightful origins. That said, when you learn the checkered past of some of these phrases, you might think twice about using them.
“To steal one’s thunder”
Thor and young-adult demigod Percy Jackson may be fiction’s most celebrated thunder stealers, but it was an 18th-century dramatist named John Dennis who popularized the phrase. Dennis invented a device to simulate the sound of thunder for his plays—so clever that a rival dramatist copied his method for a production of Macbeth.
“Eternal curses light on these scoundrels!” Dennis is said to have declared. “They have stolen my thunder and don’t know how to roll it!”
“Let the cat out of the bag”
Who would even put a cat in a bag? The answer may lie in medieval markets, where people used to sell piglets tied in bags for farmers to carry
home. A shady dealer might swap the piglet in the sack with a less expensive animal, such as a cat. So when you let the cat out of the bag, you were exposing the con to everyone.
“The seven-year itch”
Before the phrase became associated with Marilyn Monroe’s iconic skirt, the “seven-year itch” felt much worse than a playful subway breeze. The term originally referred to scabies, an itchy infection caused by mites burrowing underneath a person’s skin. Its “seven-year” moniker referred to how long the bugs could linger. Yuck!
“The cold shoulder”
Giving someone “the cold shoulder” may have originally meant giving someone a meal—a lousy one. Serving a guest a cold shoulder of mutton (an inexpensive, undesirable dish in the early 19th century) was a subtle way to get rid of him or her. As Sir Walter Scott said in his 1823 novel
St. Ronan’s Well, “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.”
“Zounds!” “Egad!” “Cripes!” These silly exclamations, called minced oaths, were originally Bible-friendly alternatives to swearing. The idea was that if you shouted “Gadzooks!” instead of “God’s hooks!”—a reference to the nails from the Crucifixion—you could stub your toe without running afoul of the third commandment. Other minced oaths: gosh (“God”) and jeepers (“Jesus”). Christians have been shouting gadzooks since the 1690s.
“Blood is thicker than water”
You probably think this means you should always put family ahead of friends. In fact, it originally may have meant the opposite. The full maxim was “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” with covenant referring to friendship. In other words, it was your friends— your blood brothers, if you will—who were with you through thick and thin.
“Till the cows come home”
Clearly, this has to do with cattle curfews, right? It sort of does. Cows were often milked in their barns at night, making that task one of the last on a farmer’s to-do list (but let’s hope he wouldn’t wait forever to do the job, as the phrase implies now). The expression has been around since at least the late 1500s and is likely to continue until … well, you know.