Word Origins and Expressions

Bits & Pieces Column

Helpful Chitchat







By Evelyn J. Mocbeichel



I find the discovery of the origin of many of our standard expressions fascinating. The root seldom comes from where we expect. Each time I learn about one, it becomes another “trivia notch” on my belt to share.

If you are a fan of old Westerns, as my dad was, these expressions could be heard regularly in John Wayne movies and other films of that era. A cowboy would saunter up to the bar and ask for a “shot of whiskey,” which was the drink of choice back then. Why was it called a shot? In the Old West, a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents; so did a glass of whiskey. If a cowhand were low on cash, he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a “shot” of whiskey.

What about when a ranch was sold and the contract was known to be “ironclad” between the buyer and seller? Where did the term “ironclad” come from? It came about from the ironclad ships of the Civil War. It meant something so strong it could not be broken.

A more somber expression, when someone “bought the farm” was synonymous with dying. During World War I, soldiers were given life insurance policies worth $5,000. This was about the price of an average farm back then, so if you died, you “bought the farm” for your survivors.

Speaking of living in a farmhouse, back during colonial times the expression “dirt poor” comes from that time period when the floors of houses were literally made of dirt. Only wealthy people had some kind of flooring such as slate or wooden planks to cover the walking areas of their home. So if a family had only soil on the floor, they were known as being “dirt poor.”

One expression I’ve used for years is to wish someone a good night’s sleep and to “sleep tight.” I learned that this term went back to colonial times. Back then, beds were made with a wooden frame with ropes tied across the frame in a criss-cross pattern. A straw mattress was then placed on top of the ropes. Over time the ropes stretched, causing the bed to sag. The owner would then tighten the ropes to get a better night’s sleep. So to sleep tight meant that your bed didn’t sag and you were able to have a comfortable sleep, which makes sense!

March 29, 2017 |

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