On the Origin of Phrases

I don’t know why, but all of a sudden I got the urge to flesh out where the saying,  “the plot thickens” started.  I mean why would a plot be thick?  Why not “the plot deepens?” Why not the plot twists?  I did a quick Google search and got nada.  But I did find an interesting website (www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/183700.html) that did illuminate some interesting phrase beginnings.  Not surprising to find that many common idioms have their origins in Shakespeare or the bible.  Here is just a small sampling:

‘can’t hold a candle to’

 Apprentices held candles for more experienced workmen so they were able to see what they were doing.

‘hurts like the dickens’

 Nope, nothing to do with Charles Dickens.  The term “dickens” refers to the devil, possibly via devilkins. Shakespeare used it in ‘the Merry Wives of Windsor, 1600: 

    “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of.”

Lest you think Americans have no imagination, the phrase, ‘if I had my druthers,’ originated in the late 19th century.  Druthers was first used as “drathers” in the January 1870 edition of Overland monthly and Out West magazine in Centrepole Bill by George F. Emery:

      “If I was a youngster, I ‘drather set up in any perfession but a circus-driver, but a man can’t always have his ‘drathers.”

The term druthers came later and can be traced back to 1876 in Dialect Notes:

        Bein’s I caint have my druthers an’ set still, I cal’late I’d better pearten up an’ go ‘long.”

 All this research still left me out in the cold as to where the saying “the plot thickens” came from.   It hurts like the dickens that my curiosity was not satisfied.  If I had my druthers, I’d keep looking.

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3 Responses to On the Origin of Phrases

  1. Susan McClurg Berman says:

    Amazing where some of these things came from. Enjoyed your post, Jill.

  2. chs says:

    Fun post, Jill. My daughter had to do several reports for English class on the origins of common idioms. I think she used that site, too.

  3. Fran Cain says:

    I read an interesting article on the extensive effort put into finding and using the correct language and expressions to fit the period (1960-63)for the show “Mad Men” on AMC. Jill, you’d be perfect for that team of writers! http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/magazine/25FOB-onlanguage-t.html

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