Several months ago we had a column in which we spoke about the derivation of some common phrases, such as “Buying a pig in a poke,” which didn’t take much explaining because back in earlier times unscrupulous individuals in open market places sometimes slipped a puppy or a cat into a burlap bag instead of a piglet. Which also explains the phrase, “Letting the cat out of the bag.”
However, some odd phrases have genuinely puzzling derivations. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
What about, “As happy as a clam?”
Ever seen a happy clam? I haven’t, and I don’t ever expect to see one.
So where in the world did an expression like that originate? Well, I grew up in New London, Conn., where the only thing separating people who love clam chowder from a ready supply of clams was a clam rake and a stroll to almost any beach. So I often heard a slightly different version.
What I heard many times as I grew from my teens to my 20s was, “As happy as a clam at high water.”
Why would a clam be happy at “high water?” Well, it’s a lot harder, and even impossible in some places, to go clamming at high tide. Too deep.
But at low tide? Look out clams!
Who first spoke that phrase? This may surprise you; it sure surprised me! None other than Confederate General Robert E. Lee is credited with having said it in a letter to a friend in 1833.
Here’s another one. We all know what we mean when we say that someone has “lost his marbles.” But someone who actually meant something else made the original comment. In 1886, a copy of the St. Louis Globe–Democrat newspaper contained a comment about someone, saying that he had, “... roamed the block all morning like a boy who had lost his marbles.”
That original, wistfully sad comment has come to mean something quite different, hasn’t it?
When Lolly, the kids, and I first arrived in England for a four-year stay I heard something that really puzzled me. A real estate agent was showing me how to operate the rather odd controls to a heating system in a nice little house just north of Banbury. Holding down a button as he flipped a switch, he said, “Just hold down this button, turn this switch, and Bob’s your uncle!”
I took it that his comment meant that the thing would then run, but I wondered about that expression. I didn’t wonder about it for long, however, because every time some helpful bloke showed me how to do something new I heard the same expression, and I soon learned that it meant that the task would be easy.
However, it wasn’t until I looked it up a year or two ago that I at last — after 45 years — found out where such an odd phrase came from. It seems that Lord Salisbury, the 20th Prime Minister of England, was sometimes called “Robert,” or occasionally even just plain “Bob,” during the political wrangling of the day.
As the story goes, Lord Salisbury was criticized by opponents for what was seen as a bit of “nepotism” when he appointed a “favorite nephew” named Arthur Balfour to the critical post of Chief Secretary for Ireland. It’s easy to see how that gave rise of the phrase “and Bob’s your uncle,” which means what we Yanks mean when we say “and that’s how easy it can be!”