Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Phrase origins: off the cuff

I hear the phrase "off the cuff" comes from olden days when debts were literally written on the cuff of the man who provided a service or goods. Kind of a credit system for the pre-credit card era. These days we just mean something was handled in a breezy manner, quickly and without formal preparation -- off the cuff.

What I'd like to do today is investigate a few phrases without benefit of looking anything up. You know, like we used to do it -- off the cuff. So let's begin. And remember: no peeking at the Intertubes. This is just about what you think the phrase indicates, what connections it has for you. I think we have rich repositories of word meanings in our minds and I want to tap only that today. Perhaps next Thursday we can check with the Intertubes and see how we did.

Something to fall back on. This is one of those phrases that just makes sense. It seems both human and basic: it's what we do -- we lean back for support, we fall back onto beds and couches and chairs. And the image of someone falling back, thinking there's someone to catch him when there isn't, makes us very uncomfortable. There is comfort in knowing you have something to fall back on. It seems almost primal. I like when expressions readily indicate their meaning. In other words, you don't need someone to explain this to you when you hear it for the first time. It makes sense. Since it's such a nice, direct phrase I'm not surprised it sees such wide use (or used to, anyway when people had, you know, language). But if it has a specific origin, tied to events or persons or institutions, I have no idea what that might be. The phrase just seems natural.

Well-heeled. I think this phrase belongs with the one above. In a sense, when you're well-heeled you literally have something to fall back on: your own supportive heels. I like that. Fresh heels make a fellow stand up sturdy and tall. Of course, the phrase origins are obvious: well-to-do people had the money to keep their shoes well-heeled. So to say one is well-heeled means well off. Shoemakers used to be a big deal, by the way, for those of you who were impertinent enough to have been born after 1980 or so. Cobblers, as they were called, were on every other corner. And jeez, did it smell strange in there. I always wondered how their lungs fared, these cobblers who spent decades working in that environment. In any case, I like the phrase well-heeled but it, like cobblers, has seen better days. I can't remember the last time I heard someone use it.

Hunker down. I really wonder about the origin of this one. I have no clue. Moving to images, somehow this phrase brings the upper back and shoulder area to mind, though I can't say why. It's as if you have to get that area down below the wall, car, or whatever else you're ducking behind. Hunker down. I like the sound of it. Perhaps the "hunk" part of hunker influences me, too. In my mind, I see soldiers or other largish men and someone is literally pushing down on their upper backs and shoulders, to get them to squat, and he's saying, "Hunker down!" I have no idea why this phrase evokes these images in my brain. Of course, the phrase also means "do nothing". When a large group wants to go in six different directions, sometimes the best thing to do is to hunker down -- in other words,  sit tight and do nothing. (Sit tight, eh? I wonder what that one's about.) But for me, you hunker down to remain safe. That's the primary thing I get from it.

Don't upset the apple-cart. This phrase popped into my mind the other day and I wondered if apple-carts were particularly rickety affairs. I don't think I've actually seen someone selling apples from a cart. That's something that was before even my time. I picture a wooden cart that has two large wheels, though this image is probably from old movies. The cart I see in my mind has handles, like a shopping cart. Perhaps when you lifted the handles, the surface would tilt and things would fall off. Is that what it's all about? On the other hand, from my very earliest days I do recall poor people selling all sorts of shoddy whatnot on stands they cobbled (there's that word again!) together with spit and rubber bands. In other words, their goods did indeed stand on a rickety house of cards. Maybe the phrase just comes from a class of vendors who, due to poverty, had to rely on substandard display carts to sell their goods -- carts that apparently tipped all the time.

That's my bunch for today. I will revisit them at a later date and at that time I'll consult the Intertube gods to see what they have to say. What I want to elicit today are your impressions and perhaps any images that these phrases bring to mind, even if the images don't seem constructively related. Sometimes there are gems in the side-knowledge and perhaps when we look these phrases up, we'll see some of our thoughts echoed in the official explanations. No cheating! Look nothing up.

Please chime in by leaving a comment. (Commenting is fun, by the way, not scary. Give it a try. I won't bite. Come out, come out, wherever you are.)