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From the desk of Robert E. Liggett: Talk about sayings

April 16, 2001

Just "between you, me and the lamppost," Satan has absolutely nothing to do with being caught "between the devil and the deep blue sea."

The latter phrase dates to 1621. It's earliest recorded use, referred to a seam between planks on the decks of wooden sailing vessels. That seam was "The devil to get at" for caulking as it was nearest to the edge of the deck and every sailor trying to caulk it in heavy seas risked a plunge into "the deep blue …" A seam around the hull at the waterline was called "the devil" for the same reason.

That explains another phrase, "the devil to pay," referring to "paying," a term used for waterproofing with hot pitch the same devils once they were caulked.

The other phrase, "between you, me and the lamppost" is somewhat younger, being first used by Charles Dickens in his novel, "Nicholas Nickleby" (1838). If not original to Dickens, it is hardly much older as lampposts only came into use in the late 1700s and "between you and me" is an "in confidence" cliché probably as old as verbal speech.

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Origins for a host of the words and phrases coloring everyday conversations come from a book, "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins," (copyright 1987) by Robert Hendrickson, a critically acclaimed author on language and literature. The book has languished in my library until a recent search for one subject ignited a curious probing into what other gems might be found. The search unearthed a diamond mine of fascinating if somewhat superfluous information.

Ever wonder why "abbreviation" confounds its intent by being such a long word? Derived from a Latin word, its first recorded use in English was in the early 16th century. Abbreviations have but one purpose — saving writing time and printed space. This is not in the book, but it is probably safe to assume the burgeoning bureaucracies of the 20th century are largely responsible for popularizing, if not originating, that often confusing first cousin to the abbreviation — the acronym.

Designations for governmental programs such as the Rooseveltian NRA (National Recovery Administration) of the depression era have proliferated into nicknames, official corporate names and logos for a veritable galaxy of organizations, businesses and governmental agencies. But all too frequently, they are merely the hallmark of the lazy writer. Editors of the past have been known for wielding deadly blue pencils when reporters or writers dared use them.

Writers are prone to shed great "crocodile tears" when editors alter copy, although crocodiles can't shed tears. An adventurer and "nature fakir" named John Maundeville originated that idea about 1400 when he mythologized that crocodiles "moaned and cried" to lure their prey. Shakespeare perpetuated the myth as a term of feigned sorrow.

"Make no bones about it," the idea of crocodile tears is akin to "making a mountain out of a molehill" and represent perhaps "a drop in the bucket" of all the clichés sprinkled through today's conversations that have their origins in the ago, both long and not so long.

Erasmus in his "Paraphrase of the Gospel of Luke" in 1548 is said in later translations to have related that Abraham "made no bones about it" in offering up his son as a living sacrifice. It was just a few years later, 1570, that Foxe's "book of Martyrs" recorded "makeying mountaines of Molehils (sic)." Also about the same time, 1546, John Heywood, wrote "when the sunne shinth make hay" in his "All the Proverbes in the English Tongue" and "make hay while the sun shines" has been in common usage since.

The metaphor "a drop in the bucket" is Biblical. Isaiah 9:15 in the King James Version reads: "Behold, the nations are a drop of a bucket and are counted as the small dust of the balance."

If you think of a short-tempered person as prone to "fly off the handle," you are using a phrase from early Americana when axes were crudely made with hand-carved handles fitting loosely into the heads. Anyone standing near the chopper was in a precarious spot. Or if skepticism is your nature, you might enjoy a 1921 account by Dr. Walter Stevens of a Southern colonel during the Civil War who refused to surrender his troop to a Yankee who claimed to have superior forces lurking just over the hill. "I'm from Missouri, show me," he said.

Old Julius, before he was done in by pal Brutus, had never heard of a Caesar salad. That was invented by a Tijuana chef named Caesar Gardini in the early 1920s.

Mary Poppins may have coined "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," but she was only acting in character. As far back as Elizabethan England, dreaming up definable long words was a popular parlor game, hence "honorificabilitatibus," meaning the state of being honorable. And "flibbertigibberty" came into the language from Shakespeare's "King Lear" whose cast included a nervous type called Flibbertigibbet.

"Just between you, me and the lamppost," all of this is "much ado about nothing," another phrase coming down to us from Shakespeare who used it as the title of one of his comedies. He has been frequently mentioned because he is responsible for many of the saws, adages and aphorisms we use today, hardly knowing or not knowing at all that we are quoting the Bard.

ROBERT V. LIGGETT is the former managing editor of this newspaper and an El Centro resident.

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