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Slang Origins

by Woody Allen


How many of you have ever wondered where certain slang expressions come from? Like "She's the cat's pajamas," or to "take it on the lam." Neither have I. And yet for those who are interested in this sort of thing I have provided a brief guide to a few of the more interesting origins.

Unfortunately, time did not permit consulting any of the established works on the subject, and I was forced to either get the information from friends or fill in certain gaps by using my own common sense.

Take, for instance, the expression "to eat humble pie." During the reign of Louis the Fat, the culinary arts flourished in France to a degree unequaled anywhere. So fat was the French king that he had to be lowered onto the throne with a winch and packed into the seat itself with a large spatula. A typical dinner (according to DeRochet) consisted of a thin crepe appetizer, some parsley, an ox, and custard. Food became the court obsession, and no other subject could be discussed under penalty of death. Members of a decadent aristocracy consumed incredible meals and even dressed as foods. DeRochet tells us that M. Monsant showed up at the coronation as a weiner, and Etienne Tisserant received papal dispensation to wed his favorite codfish. Desserts grew more and more complex and pies grew larger and larger until the minister of justice died trying to eat a seven-foot "Jumbo Pie." "Jumbo" pie soon became "jumble" pie and "to eat a jumble pie" referred to any kind of humiliating act. When the Spanish seamen heard the word "jumble," they pronounced it "humble," although many preferred to say nothing and simply smile.

Now, while "humble pie" goes back to the French, "take it on the lam" is English in origin. Years ago, in England, "lamming" was a game played with dice and a large tube of ointment. Each player in turn threw dice and then jumped around the room until he started bleeding. If a person threw seven or under he would say the word "quintz" and proceed to spin quickly. If he threw over seven, he was forced to give every player a part of his feathers and was given a good "lamming." Three "lammings" and a player was "kwirled" or declared immoral. Gradually any game with feathers was called "lamming" and feathers became "lams." To "take it on the lame" meant to put on feathers and later, to escape, although the transition is unclear.

Incidentally, if two of the players disagreed on the rules, we might say they "got into a beef." This term goes back to the Renaissance when a man would chase a woman by rubbing the side of her head with a piece of meat. If she pulled away, it meant she was spoken for. If, however, she assisted by holding the meat to her face and pushing it all over her head, it meant she would marry him. The meat was kept by the bride's parents and worn as a hat on special occasions. If, however, the husband took another lover, the wife could end the marriage by running with the meat to the town square and yelling, "With thine own beef, I do reject thee. Aroo! Aroo!" If a couple "took to the beef" or "had a beef" it meant they were arguing.

Another marriage custom gives us that beautiful expression of dislike, "to look down one's nose." In Persia it was considered a mark of great beauty for a woman to have a long nose. In fact, the longer the nose, the more desirable the female, up to a certain point. Then it became funny. When a man proposed to a beautiful woman he awaited her decision on his knees as she "looked down her nose at him." If her nose itched, he was accepted, but if she sharpened her nose with a rock and began poking him on the neck and shoulders, it meant she loved another.

……

Well, I hope you've enjoyed some of these slang origins and that they make you investigate some on your own. And in case you were wondering about the term used to open this study, "the cat's pajamas," it goes back to an old burlesque show of Chase and Rowe's, the two crazy German professors. Dressed in big coats, Bill Rowe stole some poor victim's pajamas. Dave Chase, who had "poor hearing”, would ask him:

CHASE: Ach, Herr Professor. Vot is dot bulge under your pocket?
ROWE: Dot? Dot's de chap pajamas.
CHASE: The cat's pajamas? Ut mein Gott?

Audiences were angered by this sort of act and only a premature death of the team by strangulation kept them from being stars.

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