Thursday, December 16, 2021

WORD & PHRASE ORIGINS, CONTINUED

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Continuing a look at a list circulating on the internet with claimed origins of listed words and phrases, most of them incorrect . . .

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‘IRON-CLAD CONTRACT’

This came about from the iron-clad ships of the Civil War.

It meant something so strong it could not be broken.

Comment:

ironclad (adj.)
1852 of knights, 1861, of warships, American English, from iron (n.) + clad. Figuratively, of contracts, etc., "very rigid or strict, allowing no evasion or escape," from 1884. As a noun meaning "iron-clad ship," it is attested from 1862.

Source:
Etyonline

ironclad agreement
A mythical contract that can't be broken—like the Loch Ness Monster, often reported but never confirmed. As a practical matter, there is no agreement that can't be broken if the parties have sufficient resources, well-qualified legal talent, and plenty of time.

Source:
The Free Dictionary

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‘PASSING THE BUCK / THE BUCK STOPS HERE’

Most men in the early west carried a jackknife made by the Buck Knife company. When playing poker it was common to place one of these Buck knives in front of the dealer so that everyone knew who he was. When it was time for a new dealer the deck of cards and the knife were given to the new dealer. If this person didn't want to deal he would "pass the buck" to the next player. If that player accepted then "the buck stopped there".

Comment:

Poker became very popular in America during the second half of the 19th century. Players were highly suspicious of cheating or any form of bias and there's considerable folklore depicting gunslingers in shoot-outs based on accusations of dirty dealing. In order to avoid unfairness the deal changed hands during sessions. The person who was next in line to deal would be given a marker. This was often a knife, and knives often had handles made of buck's horn - hence the marker becoming known as a buck. When the dealer's turn was done he 'passed the buck'.


Source:
The Phrase Finder

"The buck stops here" is a phrase that was popularized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who kept a sign with that phrase on his desk in the Oval Office. The phrase refers to the notion that the President has to make the decisions and accept the ultimate responsibility for those decisions. Truman received the sign as a gift from a prison warden who was also an avid poker player. It is also the motto of the U.S. Naval Aircraft Carrier USS Harry S. Truman.

At the recreation of the Truman Oval Office at the Truman Library in 1959, 
former President Truman poses by his old desk which has the famous "The Buck Stops Here" sign.

Source:
Wikipedia

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‘RIFF RAFF’

The Mississippi River was the main way of traveling from north to south. Riverboats carried passengers and freight but they were expensive so most people used rafts. Everything had the right of way over rafts which were considered cheap. The steering oar on the rafts was called a "riff" and this transposed into riff-raft – or riff-raff, meaning low class.

Comment:

As early as 1326, the Annales Paulini (the chronicles of the reigns of Edward I and Edward II) record the French term 'rifler' with the meaning of 'robber; plunderer'. The Anglo-Norman word 'raf' was used in the French moral text The Debate between the Body and the Soul, circa 1330, with an undefined but generally depreciative meaning. The seems to derive from the French verb 'raffler', 'to ravage' or 'snatch away'. It may be that the two words 'rif' and 'raf' were simply semi-rhyming variants of each other.

At that stage 'rif and raf' meant 'everything; every little bit', which no doubt reflects the 'rifling; stripping' meaning and indicates that plunderers left little of value behind them.

The 'riff-raff' version that has come down to us appears in Gregory's Chronicle, circa 1470:

Many a man was mortheryde and kylde in that conflycte, I wot not what name hyt for the multytude of ryffe raffe. [Many men were murdered and killed in that fight. I don't know what to describe it due to the large number of riff-raff'.]

It is clear that, by that date, the meaning of 'ryffe raffe' related to people and was derogatory. It seems likely that the name 'riff-raff' had transferred from the plunder to the plunderer.

The meaning continued to change , more toward the current 'scum; dregs of society' meaning. In 1545, Roger Ascham's Toxophilus, the Schole of Shooting included it with that meaning:

The common wealthe can be contente to take at a fonde father's hand the rifraffe of the worlde.

Source:
The Phrase Finder


Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Show

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