Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The etymology of phrases

In her latest post , CC asks, “Ever wondered where “That’s what she said” came from?” She’s expecting a negative, for she says, “Me neither…”, but actually I have wondered.

I find the etymology of phrases and picturesque language as fascinating as the etymology of words themselves. They make the difference between informing someone and telling a story; properly used, they produce effects and generate images that one would not have thought mere words capable of. They are the mark of the true educator, author, or journalist.

Their power can be told by the fact that once a particularly effective phrase enters the common vernacular, it gets run into the ground. One such is “fast and furious”- I became curious about this one a couple years ago after reading and/or hearing it spoken seventeen times in a single day. It may well be the single most overused couplet in the English language; many people seem incapable of even saying the word “fast” without completing it.

I started researching it- not seriously, but whenever I thought of it while a resource was available. To date, the oldest use of the phrase I can find is Robert Burns’ poem, “Tam O’Shanter”:
“As Tammie glower'd, amaz'd, and curious,The mirth and fun grew fast and furious…And how Tam stood like ane bewitch'd,And thought his very een enrich'd"

Is anyone aware of an earlier usage?

P.S. If any of you are Cutty Sark fans, are you aware that both the ship and the liquor were named for this poem? The young witch whose dancing so entranced Tam wore a “cutty sark”, which apparently is a nightshirt far too short to answer the call of decency.

P.P.S It occurs to me that an appropriate use of the phrase would be to describe Danica Patrick's walk down pit row in the 500.

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