Gad­zooks! The Sur­pris­ing Sources of Great Say­ings

Reader's Digest - - Contents - JACOPO DELLA QUERCIA

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.

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