The origin of phrases: Part five

by Stratton Craig

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Five in, five to go. So far we’ve researched the origins of everything from the bee’s knees to the third degree. Be the envy of the pub quiz team with five more British idioms to add to your repertoire.
Straight and narrow
Meaning: Staying on the right path
Origin: It’s difficult to be completely certain but most sources agree that it’s likely an alternative to a line in the bible. It reads:“strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life“ – Matthew 7:14. This refers to the road to heaven, which fits with the idea of keeping on the right path, or the straight and narrow.
Chew the fat / Chew the cud
Meaning: Chat aimlessly about nothing in particular
Origin: There’s no clear origin for this idiom but many sources agree that the first known use in writing was by Henry Fielding in his 1749 book The History of Tom Jones: “Having left her a little while to chew the cud, if I may use that expression, on these first tidings.” The idea being that the cud (or fat) is the part-digested food that cows and other animals chew at leisure – usually slowly and aimlessly. It makes sense then that the alternative use of this phrase refers to chatting in a relaxed way about nothing in particular.
Pass the buck
Meaning: Deflecting blame for an action from yourself onto someone else
Origin: A term coined at the poker tables in America. The use of ‘buck’ to indicate the dealer came about as the result of a buck-handled knife (presumably made from the antler of a deer) being passed around the group when it was the next person’s turn to deal. For those who didn’t want the responsibility of being the dealer, they could pass the buck to the next player. It was used most notably in Mark Twain’s Roughing It: “I reckon I can’t call that hand. Ante and pass the buck.”
Top notch
Meaning: Of the highest quality / the best
Origin: Sadly the origins of this idiom are vague. However, what we do know is that it came from a game played in the 1840s in which the score was kept by moving the marker up notches each time a player gained a point. Unfortunately all the sources we found agreed that there’s no record of what game was being played…
Top drawer (bonus phrase, inspired by Top notch):
Meaning: Of the highest quality
Origin: This is a really nice and simple one – it refers to the top drawer in the bedroom of rich folk in the early 1900s, where items of high value were often kept.
Upper case and Lower case
Meaning: The size of a written or typed letter of the alphabet
Origin: A relatively new term in the English language, these phrases came from the early days of the printing press. Individual letter blocks were organised into separate sections, called cases. The cases containing capital letters were stored higher than those containing smaller letters, hence upper and lower case.
If you’re just jumping on the idiom bandwagon now…fear not, you can read Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four right here.

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