Fun Facts About Language #2

In case you didn’t know, I love language. So bare with me as we (I) explore the meaning behind words and phrases …

I’m so glad you asked. Read on …

Ax to grind – The creation of this phrase is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who used it in an article entitled “Too Much for Your Whistle.” It means a private or selfish motive behind a request or action – something which is not obvious at first glance. The story is that of a man who had an ax which needed to be sharpened. He pretended to young Franklin that he didn’t know how a grindstone worked and asked Franklin to show him. Many turns of the handle later Franklin was weary, the ax was beautifully sharp and the man, having gained his objective, only jeered at Franklin for having been hoodwinked.

As the crow flies – means the shortest distance between two points. The crow flies straight to its destination.

All Greek to me – goes back to Shakespeare. The line was first spoken by Casca, one of the conspirators against Caesar in the first act of Julius Caesar. He was speaking of the comments made by Cicero after Caesar three times refused the crown of emperor. Cicero actually did speak Greek, using that language as a device to make sure that casual passers-by did not understand his remarks. Today the expression, “It’s all Greek to me” simply means that what has been said is beyond the speaker’s understanding.


Fun Facts About Language #1

In case you didn’t know, I love language. I studied language in college and I suffered through an Aristotle class on the origins of language.

It was a painful class, but I learned a lot about language and the art of communication in that class.

So when Kevin brought home the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, I was pretty excited.

Have you ever wondered where a word or phrase came from? No? Just me? Well …

I’m going to share some of the ones I found interesting with you because, well, I like you … (can you imagine how I would treat you if I didn’t like you! You’re welcome).

I’m so glad you asked. Read on …

American English – Why was English chosen as our language after we broke from England? Why wasn’t it Indian or something else? At first glance these look like frivolous questions, but it may surprise you to know that at the time of the founding of this nation many of its leaders debated very seriously whether or not English should be carried forward as the official language of the United States, as it had been of the colonies. Never was there any serious consideration of an American Indian language as a substitute for English. For one thing, the various Indian dialects were spoken tongues. Not until Sequoyah, in the early nineteenth century, devised an alphabet for the Cherokee language, did an Indian tongue become a written language.

But the bitterness of the colonists against the British was strong enough for many to feel that they should rid themselves of the British tongue, as well as of “the tyrant’s rule.” So some members of the Continental Congress solemnly proposed that English be banished and Hebrew substituted. The fact that few colonists could read or speak Hebrew and that it had not been a living language for centuries sufficed to kill that suggestion. Another proposal was that Greek be adopted as our official language. That idea lasted only long enough for one patriot to remark that “it would be more convenient for us to keep the language as it is and make the English speak Greek.”

What finally happened, of course, was that we continued to speak our own brand of English, which, after a century or so, became known as “American English,” or “The American Language.” The differences between our version and that spoken in the British Isles are great. Even the influences of movies, magazines and television have not removed many of the inconsistencies between the two versions of the language. In the end Britain and American find themselves, in George Bernard Shaw’s paradoxical phrase, “one people divided by a common language.”

A-O.K. was invented by a NASA public relations officer, Colonel “Shorty” Powers. The occasion was our first suborbital flight in May 1961 and the astronaut involved was Alan Shepard. But Powers, relaying to newsmen and the radio audience what he heard from Shepard, mistook a simple, “O.K.” for A-O.K. He fancied the sound of the term so much that he repeated it several times and it caught on with newspaper headline writers, if not with the astronauts themselves. According to our best information, no astronaut ever used the term and it was been notably absent from radio and TV reports of subsequent space flights.

Apple of One’s Eye – The first apple of the eye was the pupil, which in ancient days was thought to be a round object similar to the apple. As recently as Anglo-Saxon times, the same word, aeppel, meant both “eye” and “apple.” It goes without saying that the pupil of one’s eye is very previous indeed – and that’s how the expression the apple of one’s eye came to mean something greatly treasured.