Every year, around this time, I look forward to writing this column, as it is entitled, ‘The Origin of the Species’. It is an opportunity for me to dig into some commonly used phrases and try to discover their source.
My first one on this year’s list is ‘whipping boy’, which refers to a scapegoat or someone who is constantly picked on. This reference dates back to days of old, when princes were always raised with a commoner of the same age. Because a prince was royal, they could not be punished, so whenever they did anything wrong, the commoner would receive the lashes instead… not a job I would want to sign up for.
Another often used phrase is ‘pie in the sky’, which refers to a fantasy or unrealistic goal. It stemmed from a song, written in the early 1900s by Joe Hill. The song was about a clergyman who promised people a better life in heaven, while they were starving on earth. One of the lines was, ‘Work and pray, live on hay, you’ll get a pie in the sky when you die’.
Have you known anyone who over acts or plays unnecessarily to an audience? They are referred to as being ‘hams’. Ever wonder where that phrase came from? Minstrel shows of the 1880s, which were the mass entertainment of the day, often employed not-so-good actors, who over acted their roles. They usually appeared in ‘blackface’ and used ham fat to remove their makeup. They were referred to as ‘ham fat men’, which was later shortened to ‘hams’.
The word ‘photograph’ is derived from a Greek phrase, meaning, painting with light, but where then does the word ‘picture’ originate? Surprisingly, it dates back to 1475 when the Latin word ‘pictūra’, which means the act of painting, was first used. Derivatives followed with phrases like picture ‘post-card’, first recorded in 1899, ‘picture window’, dating back to 1938 and ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, attested from 1918, which refers to the space a photo would take up in a publication.
Lastly, the term ‘let the cat out of the bag’, which means ‘not keeping a secret’, has its origins in merry old England, when tricksters would try and fool would be buyers, by placing cats in bags and telling the person it was a suckling pig. If the buyer suspected something awry, the seller would have to open the bag and show the cat.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on Rogers TV, the Standard Website or YouTube.