Mother Said, “It’s Greek to Me”

by Beth Diane Bradley

It happens all the time.  I’m in the middle of a conversation, and out of my mouth pops some old fashioned phrase my mother used to say. She would be in her 90’s if she were still living, so these phrases don’t get out much anymore.

One of my favorites is “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” And according to World Wide Words.org, it has been in use since the early 1900’s, and may have originated from Vaudeville.

“A man comes in late at night to a lodging house, rather the worse for wear. He sits on his bed, takes one shoe off and drops it on the floor. Guiltily remembering everyone around him is trying to sleep, he takes the other one off much more carefully and quietly puts in on the floor. He then finishes undressing and gets into bed. Just as he is drifting off to sleep, a shout comes from the man in the room below: ‘Well, drop the other one then! I can’t sleep, waiting for you to drop the other shoe!”

Since I live in an apartment, I do relate to the “droppee,” as I have been kept awake by someone else’s habits from the unit above me.

But I am intrigued by the fact that the dropper’s sleep was also disturbed. I guess “there’s no rest for the wicked.”  Yes, she said that one too.  It’s from the bible, the book of Isaiah.

And the droppee has caused his own state of anxiety by anticipating something that was not going to happen. Kind of a “worry wart” wasn’t he?

According to Word-Detective.com, “worry wart” became a household standard when it was used as the name of a character in “Out Our Way,” a newspaper comic strip drawn by James R. Williams from 1922 to 1957. Oddly enough, Williams’ “Worry Wart” was a young boy who caused worry in others, rather than being plagued by worry himself.

Although the phrase “worry wort” was also frequently used by my parent’s generation, the concept of a young boy causing worry in others rather than worrying himself also reminds me of my own experience as a mom.

There were a few incidents of miscommunication from my teenaged sons regarding their whereabouts, causing me to worry they were dead in a ditch somewhere.  One time my son was actually sleeping in his own bed at the time he was allegedly missing. You could say he was snug as a bug in a rug!

The Phrase Finder (phrases.org.uk) says “The first known example of that phrase in print is found in the account of David Garrick’s celebration of Shakespeare, Garrick’s Vagary, or England Run Mad; with particulars of the Stratford Jubilee, 1769: If she [a rich widow] has the mopus’s [coins or money], I’ll have her, as snug as a bug in a rug.”

I would have never guessed that came from Shakespeare.  It sounds more like a quote from Kermit the Frog.

And speaking of animals, there’s another phrase that has tried to pry my lips open on occasion, and I cringe every time it happens. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” What a horrible thing to say!  It’s as bad as killing two birds with one stone.

The Phrase Finder said our cat murder is the American humorist Seba Smith, who referenced it in a short story written in 1840 called The Money Diggers, “There are more ways than one to skin a cat,” so are there more ways than one of digging for money.” Not funny, Mr. Smith!

And there are multiple references about our poor feathered friends — one that claims it stems from a Chinese phrase that literally translates as “one stone two birds,” according to Wiki-answers.com. It’s backward, but I guess it works!

The alternate story they share is from the Greek Mythology tale of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus is held captive by King Minos on Crete in a high tower. All he is able to see are high walls around him and large birds overhead awaiting their demise.

Daedalus devises a plan to throw stones at the birds in the hope of fashioning artificial wings to enable the pair to fly home. He puts his stone through a clever throwing motion, and strikes one bird with the ricochet, which then hits a second bird, thus killing two birds with one stone.

This confirms what I always assume about old sayings. Most of them seem to come from  Shakespeare, the Bible, or mythology. It’s amazing how long they have remained a part of our culture.

In order to preserve these gems for future generations, maybe I should call the Rolling Stones and suggest they write a song about an exhausted shoeless boy with no worries chasing a skinless cat who just ate two dead birds. “So what do you think, Mick? Mick, are you there??”

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