Wondering about Origins of Our Words

I remember Hubert Humphrey as a jolly old politico who served as Vice President of the United States and then lost to Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election. I wasn’t quite old enough to vote then and memories of him are vague, but I do remember him for using the expression “pleased as punch.” He said it so often that comics impersonating him almost always used it. It was silly and seemed to make no sense. How could something served in a punch bowl be pleased?

I have since discovered that punch referred to a character named Mr. Punch, the violent half of the old Punch & Judy puppet shows. Punch was very pleased with himself in most of the skits and often ended up beating Judy and other puppets into submission with a stick. Not exactly a statement against domestic violence. Punch and Judy fell out of favor for obvious reasons.

My grandmother, who regarded cursing as a sin, used a lot of interesting expressions in its stead. One of them was “kotchy” when referring to undesirable, amoral and immoral people. It was just something she said that I surmised was a family thing also used by her non-cursing daughters, including my mother. I figured it must have been a legitimate word, maybe back to her ancestry in England or Scotland. When she said “kotchy” with the look of someone who had just swallowed a teaspoon of cod liver oil, you just knew what it meant.

Recently I stumbled upon “kotchy” in one of my word searches, but my joy at solving the mystery was short-lived. It turned out to be a contemporary slang word that describes a preppy middle class black guy. I’m pretty sure that’s not what grandma was talking about.

It may have been a nonsensical word that was defined by the sound of saying it. That would also fit the word “collywobbles” used to describe a queasy, upset or rumbling stomach. It apparently captures the feeling, because collywobbles is still used, mostly by the British and those of English heritage.

One expression Grandma did use, however, was more familiar and a still heard on occasion. When she said someone was a “bad egg,” it wasn’t quite as bad as being kotchy. A bad egg is someone who is not what you might expect him or her to be, comparable to cracking open an egg and finding out that it is tainted, rotten or otherwise yucky.

There is another expression that generally means there is nothing more to be said— “that’s all she wrote.” Most agree the expression arose during the World War II years when soldiers were starting to receive a missive that came to be known as the “Dear John letter.” That’s when the letter from the GI’s girl back home says she has found someone else or is simply ending the relationship. More than a few guys I served with in Vietnam received such letters. Ernest Tubb recorded a hit country song in the early 1940’s entitled “That’s All She Wrote” about a letter informing him “your good girl’s leaving you… that’s all she wrote— didn’t write no more.”

Sometimes the origin of an expression is more interesting and colorful than the expression itself.

What are those Ps and Qs you are supposed to mind in that old instruction that seemed so important to your grandmother? There is no single accepted origin for “mind your Ps and Qs.” It could refer to articles of clothing or something printers told their apprentices when setting metal type. My favorite is that it was an admonition from barmen to patrons in old English pubs to keep track of pints and quarts consumed on their tabs. Nowadays, it seems to be used most often in reference to correct grammar or spelling.

I don’t know if the following is still being used, but I’ve said it when my kids were little, and likewise from my parents, especially my father. It comes as you are picking up a child playfully and hoisting him into the air— “upsy-daisy!” Again, it seemed like a nonsense term. I figured if it had any meaning at all, it might be in reference to the child being as light as a daisy. Recently, I found an explanation in a resource called Phrase Finder. Some folks also say “ups-a-daisy,” “oops-a-daisy” and other variations.

It seems that the daisy part is an extension of the word “day,” and the earliest known use of this word, going back several years, was “upaday” in dialect, which must have meant something at the time. It referred to a child springing into the air— above the daisies, of course— or being hoisted into the air by an adult.

I suppose it’s time to say that, for this column at least, that’s all she wrote.

We all use words to explain who we are, what we believe and why we do the things we do. Does it really matter how the words and expressions we use came to be? I think it does. If you’ve read this far, it apparently does to you.

Wes is the sole copywriter/editor at SkillUnlimited and is working out of Wyalusing, PA.

About Wes

Wes is the sole copywriter/editor at SkillUnlimited and provides copy-editing services for internet marketing, website copy, book editing, and more.

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