Way back when I started blogging on a regular basis I frequently posted about the origins of interesting words I came across. I called those serial posts “Vocabulary Rocks!” Unfortunately many of those posts were lost due to transferring web servers, and I didn’t continue the series on a regular basis. A search in the Archives via “category -> vocabulary” will bring up those that remain (or just click HERE).
It was tremendous fun, however, and my passion for words hasn’t waned. Thus, I am reviving Vocabulary Rocks! This time words, as well as idioms and strange phrases will be included. Mixing it up a bit!
It is proverbial that crocodiles cry like a person in distress to lure men close enough to snatch and devour them, then shed tears over the fate of their victim. References to this proverbial belief are found in ancient Greek and Latin literature, as well as the works of many early English writers, including Shakespeare.
In a book entitled “Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville” (c.1400) it was written that:
Cokadrilles… Theise serpentes slen men, and thei eten hem wepynge.
To throw in the towel
to surrender; admit defeat
In its original form, to throw up the sponge, this appears in “The Slang Dictionary” (1860). The reference is to the sponges used to cleanse combatants’ faces at prize fights. One contestant’s manager throwing in the sponge would signal that as that side had had enough the sponge was no longer required. In recent years, towels have been substituted for sponges at fights, and consequently in the expression too.
To break the ice
(1) to relax a tense or formal atmosphere or social situation; (2) to make a start on some endeavor.
This came into general use, in sense (1), in English through Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” (1823) in the lines:
And your cold people [the British] are beyond all price,
When once you’ve broken their confounded ice.
The ice in question is metaphorically that on a river or lake in early spring. To break the ice would be to allow boats to pass, marking the beginning of the season’s activity after the winter freeze. In this way, this expression has been connected to the start of enterprise for about 400 years.
As mad as a hatter
There is a number of theories about the root of this simile. Perhaps the most intriguing, and also plausible, was offered in “The Journal of the American Medical Association” (vol. 155, no. 3). Mercury used to be used in the manufacture of felt hats, so hatters, or hat makers, would come into contact with this poisonous metal a lot. Unfortunately, the effect of such exposure may lead to mercury poisoning, one of the symptoms of which is insanity.
Famously, Lewis Carroll wrote about the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland” (1865), but there is at least one earlier reference to the expression: in “The Clockmaker” (1817) by Thomas Haliburton.
These days speakers of American English, who use “mad” to mean “angry” as well as “crazy”, may be heard to misuse the expression in the former sense.