A book that deserves a hand

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

An old book of clichés has fallen off my bookshelf into my eager hands. I forgot I owned this book. I love clichés. They are apt, funny, even more often weird. This book, Tenderfeet and Ladyfingers, by Susan Kelz Sperling, relates how we use our mortal selves as fodder for clichés that over the centuries have fallen off our bodies like dandruff.

The author’s note at the beginning explains our application of words like artery to a road, index and spine to a book, mouth to a river and neck to a bottle. According to Sperling, because we are so aware of and accustomed to our bodies, we naturally apply body name parts to objects, to behavior and to ways of thinking.

Lady fingers, which I generally think of as long fancy cakes, slim and elegant as a lady’s finger, is also the term for a type of potato, a species of lobster, a strain of apples, for unproductive corn and for a cowardly person. These latter two no doubt now politically incorrect because of the slight denigration of females.

A tenderfoot is a person who has trouble in a new situation. The word comes from the city-folk who fled West in search of gold in the 19th century and who endured sore feet in their new cowboy boots.

Other interesting phrases abound in Sperling’s collection. “To get in someone’s hair” is said about a person who is a pest. It derives from the common pests our ancestors shared, namely, lice and fleas. You may want to remember this old Arab saying for future verbal slaying of a human pest: “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits.”

The current-use words creepy and hairy, meaning frightening, come from the way one’s flesh feels when one is scared, or the way the hair stands up on the back of one’s neck when the house creaks and it sounds like someone’s creeping up the stairs to one’s bedroom.

The word browbeat is in common use. I’ve never given it much thought, even though it’s happened to me: it has the connotation of verbally putting someone down. Literally it means to use your eyebrows as insult. That kind of beating doesn’t sound very effective, but the word has been in use for 500 years and refers to a frown, the knitting of eyebrows and the looking at someone with dislike or fury. It is effective.

The expression “to keep your eyes peeled” is weird and off-putting if you give it any serious thought at all. It sounds painful, awful, a form of torture. It merely means to be watchful. It comes from the act of opening one’s eyes so wide that the lids are barely visible and one’s eyes look exposed – peeled – like a peeled orange.

“To pay through the nose” is a cliché we use for reference to the cost of auto repairs, the price of heating and cooling, gasoline prices and the cost of a glass of wine. It’s another revolting phrase if you think about it. It comes from the 9th century invasion of Ireland by the Danes. The marauders imposed a Nose Tax on the peasants after counting noses; if the Irish didn’t pay, they had their noses slit. It is as sickening a picture as it sounds.

“Long in the tooth” is a cliché for getting old. And it is a true picture in many cases. Often, as a person ages, his gums recede, which makes his teeth look longer.

I’ve used the term “spitting image” often, never really thinking about the grossness of the literal words. What does it mean? That I spit like my Dad? [Mom never spit.] According to Sperling, it comes either from the idea that a child is so like a parent in looks that the kid could have been spat out of his parent’s mouth; or from a contraction of “spirit and image” to “sp’i’t ‘n image” to “spittin’ image.”

To “cross your fingers” for good luck is something you learn young and continue to find yourself doing when you’re adult. It comes from the centuries-old Christian practice of making the sign of the cross to ward off evil. She doesn’t mention how often we use it to ward off censure to ourselves for telling a fib.

It’s intriguing to read these word books and to run across these familiar phrases that you’ve never questioned. Why would anyone say, “Carry me piggyback”? How many piggies have you noticed carrying anything on their backs? Sperling’s explanation is that piggyback has mutated over the centuries from pick-a-back or pack-a-back, referring to carrying packs on backs.

A series of phrases Sperling includes but doesn’t explain are nevertheless interesting. They have to do with itching: an itching foot means we want to travel; itching ears means we’re dying for nitty-gritty gossip; itching palm means we’re not quite honest; itching nose means we’re about to kiss a fool.

Why itching should signify anything but fleas or dry skin remains a question. Maybe Sperling’s next book will reveal the answer. A former book, Poplollies and Bellibones, a Celebration of Lost Words, sounds as good as Tenderfeet and Ladyfingers. Try her.

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