I am currently reading Who Said That First by Max Cryer, a New Zealand television producer, broadcaster, entertainment producer, singer, cabaret performer and author. It deals with the origins of common expressions, divided alphabetically from “A-1” to “your country needs you”. Here is my selection from the first half of the book:
Arm candy The attractive woman, escorted by a man with whom she need not have any relationship, who creates an impression that arouses envy towards the man among those who see them together. The origin of this term is attributed to journalist Marcia Froelke Coburn in the Chicago Tribune (21 August 1992) when commenting on Marilyn Monroe’s brief appearance (as George Sanders’ party partner) in the 1950 film All About Eve. Later the term achieved gender-equity and may refer to a good-looking man partnering a woman.
Axis of evil Axis is a mathematical term describing ‘a straight line about which a body or geometric figure rotates’. The first known use of the word axis to describe an alignment of nations was by Gyula Gombos, the Premier of Hungary, in the early 1930s, referring to an axis that connected Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany with Hungary. The term went into wider use when Italian premier Benito Mussolini made a public address on 1 November 1936 saying that the Berlin-Rome line was not an obstacle but an axis (asse in Italian) around which European states with a will to collaborate could revolve. The axis of nations was mentioned in English in newspaper reports the following day, and in time became a familiar term during WW II as a collective description of Germany, Italy and Japan- the Axis Powers, as opposed to the Allied Powers: Britain, United States and Russia. In 2002 David Frum was a speechwriter for President George W Bush. He teamed the already familiar term axis with ‘hatred’, changing it to ‘evil’ for the President’s State of the Union address on 29 January that year. Referring to countries believed to sponsor terrorism and harbour weapons of mass destruction, the President’s speech declared: States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. President Bush’s speech was widely reported and put the term axis of evil into common English usage.
Be afraid – be very afraid The statement, ‘Be afraid’ goes back to antiquity- to the King James Bible, Romans 13:4: ‘If thou do that which is evil, be afraid.’ Expanding this into ‘Be very afraid’ was already occurring in the vernacular prior to its gaining major attention in the 1986 horror movie The Fly, in which teleportation goes wrong and a man becomes half-insect. At a key moment during the horrific transformation, the character of Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) says, ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid: The line – written by David Cronenberg, George Langelaan and Charles Edward Pogue – became part of the trailer advertising the movie internationally and quickly moved into common use.
Because it was thereBritain’s famous mountaineer (and colourful character) Sir George Leigh Mallory had a passionate desire to climb to the top of Mt Everest. After a failed endeavour in 1923, he gave lectures about the Himalayas and started to plan another attempt. Asked why he’d wanted to conquer it the first time, he replied, ‘Because it was there.’ During his 1924 attempt to reach the summit, Mallory died on the mountain. Twenty-nine years later the Everest summit was finally reached by Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay. On returning, Hillary was asked virtually the same question, ‘Why did you want to do it?’ and replied by quoting Mallory: ‘Because it was there.’ The mountaineering fraternity knew he was quoting Mallory, but journalists did not, and Hillary was sometimes erroneously credited with inventing the phrase. In 1986 Mallory’s niece Mrs Newton Dunn wrote to the Daily Telegraph and explained that Mallory’s sister (Mrs Dunn’s mother) had questioned his response. Mallory’s impatient comment was, ‘Because a silly question deserves a silly answer.’
Been there, done that This term of sardonic world-weariness was already in use in Australia before it reached a wider audience in 1982 when an Australian actress in America was credited with its use. Lauren Tewes (who played cruise director Julie McCoy in The Love Boa~ was quoted in the Gettysburg Times (22 February 1982) saying that after her divorce she had no plans to re-marry: Using an Australian expression, she says, ‘Been there, done that.’ A year later the expression appeared in Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary of New Words and has been in common use internationally ever since.
(The) customer is always right The expression started out the other way around, and in French. In 1908 the Swiss hotel proprietor Cesar Ritz coined the phrase, ‘Le client n’ a jamais tort’ -‘The customer is never wrong.’ The wording underwent a change in English, possibly with the help of H. Gordon Selfridge, whose London store opened in 1909 and used the Ritz slogan in English- and back to front.
Deep Throat The term was coined by an experienced writer/director of pornographic movies, Gerard Damiano. His 1972 movie Deep Throat about a young woman with an unusual appetite was an underground sensation as well as being an above-ground headline story when 22 American States banned showings within their jurisdictions. Two years later the phrase moved into an entirely different area of publicity with the release of the book All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. This backgrounder to what was known as the Watergate scandal was a major sensation. It told of the informant within official circles who gave secret information about the level of involvement of the President. This person was identified only by a code name borrowed from the blue movie -‘Deep Throat’. (In 2005, the former Associate Director of the FBI, W Mark Felt, revealed that he had been the Deep Throat who gave information to Woodward and Bernstein.) The 1972 movie had certainly given the expression a certain (somewhat clandestine) public awareness. Their use of the term implies that Woodward and Bernstein recognised this. But the ructions about Watergate propelled the term deep throat into wide – even international – usage. Boosted by its intriguing connection with a secret whistle-blower inside US government circles, the term came to be used to describe any anonymous informant. But none of this would have happened without Gerard Damiano.
Elementary my dear Watson Sherlock Holmes never said it in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. Doyle died in 1930, and nine years later a movie was released called The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which contained the line, ‘Elementary my dear Watson.’ The scriptwriters were Garrett Fort and Basil Dean.
Elvis has left the building In 1954, when Elvis Presley was just starting out, he sang on the Louisiana radio programme. He came over as an appealing singer, minus the wriggling and sneering that had yet to develop. Teenage girls began to take notice, and Presley’s continuing performances on the show rapidly acquired an audience. Over the next couple of years, the Presley phenomenon far outgrew the 28 states to which the Hayride programme was broadcast. Aiming to conquer audiences nationwide, Elvis gave his last performance for the show on 15 December 1956. His broadcast had a fairground audience of 10,000 excited teenagers, who screamed all the way through, and continued screaming for more when he left the stage. Attempting to dampen the hysteria and get on with the rest of the show, announcer Horace Logan said: ‘Elvis has left the building; little knowing his spontaneous remark would go into show-business history. The term was subsequently widely used to signal that Elvis had left a concert venue when he’d finished performing but, curiously, its meaning reversed. That first time in Louisiana, Horace Logan wanted the audience to stay so the show could go on. But over the years, when Elvis had finished performing solo concerts, it was said to encourage audiences to leave … Elvis would not be returning to the stage. In time, the term became a catchphrase which no longer referred to Elvis personally. It came to mean that the excitement is over; the proceedings (of whatever kind) have come to an end.
Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it An abbreviated form of the original statement in the Hartford Courant newspaper in 1897: ‘A well-known American writer said once that while everybody talked about the weather nobody seemed to do anything about it.’ It has been assumed that the American writer referred to was Mark Twain, but there is no evidence that Twain ever said it or wrote it. The favoured candidate is Charles Dudley Warner, the then editor of the Hartford Courant and a friend of Mark Twain’s, who may have been reporting something Twain said. Whatever its ancestry, a version of the expression emerged as the name of a song (‘Everyone complains about the weather’) in the 1953 movie (and 1961 theatre musical) Calamity Jane.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it Variously described as an old saying from Sweden, or an old saying from Texas, the expression was seen in the Wall Street journal in October 1976 in the form: ‘If it ain’t broke let’s don’t fix it.’ The expression sprang into greater prominence during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The President’s Director of Office Management and Budget was Bert Lance, who in May 1977 was quoted in Nation~ Business as saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ The words have become a favourite warning of the cautious against anything new and untried.
Keeping up with the Joneses This expression could have had us keeping up with the Smiths but was changed by its creator at the last minute. In 1913 American cartoonist Arthur Momand realised that in his neighbourhood people seemed over-conscious of conspicuous prosperity, and a certain sense of competition prevailed. He devised a comic-strip that showed characters living up to – or beyond – their means, in order to keep pace with a community that appeared to be more wealthy than it actually was. He planned to name the cartoon strip ‘Keeping Up with the Smiths’, but after consideration changed the family’s name to Jones because it flowed better. The cartoon strip ran for 28 years across the US.
Lie back and think of England The line and its various versions (‘close your eyes and or and think of the Empire’) have absolutely no verifiable provenance. The remark was purportedly advice given by Lady Hillingdon to young women apprehensive about sexual activity. The source is said to be her 1912 diary. But there is absolutely no proof (and even the name varies, from Hillingdon to Hillingham). There was a genuine baroness, Lady Hillingdon (1857-1940), but neither her diary nor any other statement of advice from her on sexual matters has ever been seen. Other sources claim that Mrs Stanley Baldwin thought ‘of the Empire’, but nobody knows exactly who first said what, or when, but it has become too popular an expression to be laid aside for lack of provenance.
(The) lunatics have taken over the asylum In the earliest days of cinema, neither the actors’ nor the director’s names were displayed or advertised. That anonymity gradually gave way to the star system, but there was still a feeling at the administration level that actors and directors were just staff. In 1918, three of the greatest stars- Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, together with director DW Griffith founded a movie studio of their own to be called United Artists. When this news reached the head of Metro Pictures Richard Rowland, his reaction was:’ The lunatics have taken over the asylum.’ (Metro Pictures later teamed with Samuel Goldwyn and Louis Mayer, became MGM, and eventually bought United Artists.)