Have you ever asked yourself where comments like “Go fly a kite!” might have come from? I asked myself that question one day, and after a lot of wasted time I learned three things I’ll pass on to you: One, you have to be very careful when hunting derivations on the internet. Two, if you do find an answer it just may be something someone made up. Three, if you ever do find the real answer it may just put a smile on your face.
The only accurate thing I learned about “Go fly a kite” that day was that there are many other ways to say the same thing: Go climb a tree! Go fry an egg! Go chase yourself! Go soak your head! And more ...
Those are the polite ones. There are plenty of others that are not so polite, beginning with “Get lost!” Escalating from there, you quickly run into ones that aren’t used in “polite society.”
I also learned a fourth fact: The only way to be absolutely certain that a reference to the origin of some phrase is correct is if it cites the Oxford English Dictionary. Want a copy of that dictionary for yourself? Just go to a bookseller and order all 21,728 pages of the 1989 second edition, printed in 20 volumes for a mere $787.22. I think I’ll pass on that.
Just for fun, I thought I’d show you an example of the kind of horse hockey you may run across if you go looking up phrases on the internet. Here’s a reference I found about the old phrase, “Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater.”
We all know what it means; it means don’t let some small change wreak havoc with everything else. But get this trip into fantasy land!
Back in the 16th century, one source I found says, most people only took a bath once a year. Then, having decided to take the plunge, the whole family used the same tubful of water. First, in went daddy. Then, after he was scraped clean, in went the rest of the males. Then came the females. Finally, mama dipped the baby into water that was now so thick with filth she had to be careful not to sling the kid out with the muck.
That derivation, I’m happy to tell you, is pure baloney! Want to read a couple of derivations that are actually true?
One: Eating Humble Pie.
Today, that phrase not only refers to having to apologize for something, but also having to suffer humiliation along with it. But the original meaning? Yuck!
“Humble pie” derives from Middle English, spoken in medieval times. The term “umbles” referred to parts of animals — like entrails — which were usually thrown away. However, they were sometimes served to the peasants in large pies called “umble pies.” In medieval days the pie began to be spelled with or without an h — umble or humble — but since the early 1800s it has been “humble pie.”
Two: “Buying a pig in a poke.”
That phrase goes back to a time when live piglets sold in market places were placed in cloth bags so you could carry them home. Crooked peddlers sometimes slyly slipped a puppy or a cat in the bag instead of a piglet.
Interestingly enough, there are two closely related phrases. “Being sold a pup,” and “Letting the cat out of the bag.”