By Elaine Viets
I needed everyday phrases for a project partly set in the early 20th century. Old words and phrases are clues to how people thought more than a hundred years ago. Conversation was more formal and swear words were rare. Here are a few lost words I found:
Tickled pink: My Aunt Tillie, who was as cute as her name, was “tickled pink to attend a party,” or hear about a wedding, a birth, or any other good news.
Puzzle bones and sauerkraut: My grandfather’s favorite meal: pork neck bones with boiled sauerkraut.
You drive like Barney Oldfield: In other words, really fast. More than a hundred years ago, pioneer race car driver Oldfield set a number of speed records, including the world speed record for driving 131.724 mph at Dayton Beach, Florida.
He’s a (real) daisy: A deadly insult men used to insult one another. Calling a man a daisy meant he was anything from a jerk to a prize scumbag – or worse. Women were never daisies, just Daisies.
Mutton dressed as lamb: An older woman dressed like a much younger one. A form of age-shaming.
Elbow grease: What you use when you clean vigorously. As in, “Plain old elbow grease will get rid of that ring around your bathtub.”
Frog strangler: A heavy rain.
Three sheets to the wind: Really drunk. As in, “He came home from the bar three sheets to the wind.”
Wound up like a clock: Overexcited. Before digital clocks and sugar highs, children who were running around inside the house and shrieking were “wound up like a clock.” This usually meant it was naptime.
Grass widow: A divorced woman. Divorced men can be grass widowers, but that phrase didn’t seem to be used as often.
Tinker’s dam: Mom wasn’t big on swearing, so she’d say, “I don’t give a tinker’s dam.” Mom thought she was avoiding the other D-word, but that may not be true. The Phrase Finder says, “There’s some debate over whether this phrase should be ‘tinker’s dam’– a small dam to hold solder, used by tinkers when mending pans, or ‘tinker’s damn’ — a tinker’s curse, considered of little significance because tinkers were reputed to swear habitually.”
Some experts sided with Mom. They said a tinker’s dam was a socially acceptable way to curse. But others dug out a sentence from John Mactaggart’s The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia, from 1824, which said, “A tinker’s curse she did na care what she did think or say.”
The Phrase Finder says, “In the Grant County Herald, Wisconsin, 1854, we have: ‘There never was a book gotten up by authority and State pay, that was worth a tinker’s cuss.’
“So, we can forget about plumbing,” Phrase Finder concludes. “The earlier phrase simply migrated the short distance from ‘curse’ to ‘damn’ to give us the proper spelling of the phrase – tinker’s damn.”
Six ax handles wide: Body shaming was big in the old days, too. A hefty woman was described as “six ax handles wide.”
Farting like a brewery horse: A condition presumably caused by the horses’ rich diet. Not sure that this phrase is entirely forgotten. Bud Light made the following commercial, where a girl’s hair is set on fire by a gas-passing sleigh horse. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBU-lWs6Cn0
More brass than a government mule: One of my grandmother’s favorite phrases, to describe someone who is outrageously bold. As in, “He had no business being there, but that man has more brass than a government mule. He marched right in.”
I have no idea where Grandma got that phrase. I’m pretty sure she never listened to the southern rock band, Gov’t Mule. Or heard legendary wrestling commentator Jim Ross say someone was “being beat like a government mule.”
So where does that phrase come from?
Readers, what are your favorite lost words?