Stories behind “Tomfoolery” & other common phrases
Meaning: The act of making an impromptu speech to a crowd of people. Often politically charged, though it doesn’t have to be.
Origin: This is one of those sayings that stemmed from exactly what it sounds like. In the 1800s, large shipments of soap came in big wooden crates, known as soap boxes. People would often stand on them as a sort of make shift podium when proclaiming things to an outdoor audience.
Meaning: General foolishness. Creating controlled chaos in a “fun” manner on purpose.
Origin: This saying dates back as far as the Middle Ages. ‘Tom’ is used to describe a generic person (like Tom, Dick, or Harry is often used in the same way) and a ‘Tom Fool’ was someone who was a ‘generic fool’ who often took part in foolish antics in front of others.
Meaning: To go insane. To act out in a wild manner.
Origin: While the exact origin is debated, people suspect this term, which became extremely popular in the 50’s, may have stemmed from the term “Banana Oil” which was used to describe “nonsense” in the 1920’s. The phrase “Going Ape” was also popular around this time.
Orange County Archives/Flickr
Meaning: Something that is average, common, and slightly boring.
Origin: This phrase likely has origins in the factories and textile mills of the past. When something is run of the mill, it’s something that is extremely common and has been mass produced. There is a belief that the term comes from “Run of the kiln” which described bricks that have yet to be sorted for quality.
Meaning: To give a serious warning to a person or group of people.
Origin: The Riot Act was a British Law that was passed way back in 1714 to prevent riots. The funny thing is that the law only went into effect when it was read aloud by an official, so if a group of people were looking to get rowdy, an official would read the riot act aloud as a warning that if any shit went down, there would be consequences.
Karen Arnold/Public Domain Pictures
Meaning: A sure thing. Without a doubt.
Origin: The phrase has roots in horse racing. If a jockey was winning a race by such a large margin, he could relax his grip and let his hands down because he was already guaranteed to win.
Meaning: A positive thing that comes out of an otherwise negative situation or scenario.
Origin: This phrase comes directly from famed English Poet John Milton in which he talks about a dark cloud that reveals a beautiful ray of sunlight behind it.
Meaning: To face a difficult task. To be aware that you have a lot to do.
Origin: This phrase has direct roots in the tailoring business. Big projects required large pieces of fabrics to be cut out individually before being sewn together. The interesting thing is that this made the job easier, so the phrase is a bit of an oddity based on how we used it.
Meaning: To hear or learn something through gossip or rumour.
Origin: This phrase comes from the telegraph era of the 1850’s in which the ‘grapevine’ telegraph was a message sent from person to person that may have had some slight changes along the way.
Meaning: The entire thing.
Origin: This phrase comes from the Civil War. A ‘shebang’ was a cluster of bushes, a shed, or a hut in which people were occupying. Officers often wrote about “running the shebang” meaning the entire encampment.
Meaning: Not good enough compared to someone else.
Origin: This stems back to the days in which assistants would hold a candle by an artist while they did their work. This phrase comes from the idea that some candle holders weren’t even worthy of doing that, much less the art.