There were two triggers to this week’s exploration of the seemingly inexplicable regions of the English language.
I received a phone call from an unusually agitated friend who claimed she was ‘fit to be tied’ over some event. After helping drop her blood pressure a few points on the scale she even offered that I might want to use it in this column. So I did, and inevitably when the search begins around idioms one thing leads to another, so here goes… and it’s nothing to sneeze at.
Fit to be tied is generally taken to mean that the person is agitated possibly enough to be restrained. Of course it’s a figure of speech but according to the Stack Exchange Website, it could have meant this literally – as in a straight jacket. This implied the person that was “fit” was “mad” as in mentally disturbed, not just mad, as in angry. So the next time someone tries your patience to the point of ignition, just remember the white jacket with the very long sleeves and the two burly folk in white coats who will happily tie up your loose ends.
It’s nothing to sneeze at! Now there’s a gem. A sneeze is an involuntary and spasmodic explosion of air through the nose and mouth, obviously to remove an irritant from the body. Blow it away so to speak. A sneeze can be as delicate as a dainty hard to hear “choo” while others have the decibel range of the Nine – o’clock Gun. I’ve heard it described as a nasal orgasm and you’ll know what I mean if you are winding up for a good sneeze and then it doesn’t happen.
Anyway, sneezing became a pastime with the advent of snuff, a powered tobacco that became popular as far back as the 1500’s and was used as yet another ingenious method of getting nicotine into the body. It also has the property of causing the user to sneeze. According to the “Today I Found Out,” website, snuff was used as a political weapon as members of an audience wishing to disrupt the speaker would administer snuff and began to sneeze and show their disrespect. Clearly, however, if they thought the speaker or the message worthy, it would be nothing to sneeze at. There you have it! Snuff said!
Taken to the cleaners: Was not about having snuff-stained waistcoats cleaned. Rather it was of later development to replace the term of being “cleaned out.” Having one’s pockets picked bare, a term particularly appropriate of those easily duped or cheated by fraud or by gambling. From the phrase a fool and his money are soon parted there’s always someone eager to assist in the process. When dry cleaning came about, the phrase “cleaned out” was replaced by “being taken to the cleaners” referring to your pockets being checked and emptied before cleaning. It became the idiom meaning “you’ve been swindled jack” you might say you’ve been “taken to the cleaners” and then…
Hung out to dry: Something that generally happens to people who are still wet behind the ears. The reference is to laundry hung out on a line Like clothes hung on a line and unable to move, the hapless, often naïve, individual is an easy target to be blamed for something someone else did. It’s used as a distraction, as were Halderman, Ehrlichman and John Dean, while the “I’m not a crook” President Nixon tried to dodge the impeachment bullet. Ultimately they were all hung out to dry!
Wet behind the ears: Refers to any newborn creature that is so new the amniotic fluid hasn’t been dried yet. It means inexperienced or naïve and is not a compliment.
There are some who are wet behind the ears for a different reason. They are those wee and not so wee holidayers who are still wet from the oceanside, the lake or wherever else they went to enjoy their holidays. The bad news is that next weekend is the Labour Day weekend, the traditional end of summer. The good news is (parents rejoice) the kids go back to school!
And that’s nothing to sneeze at!