That’s why God made thrift stores. Spend half an hour or so wandering through the used-books section of one, and you’re almost guaranteed to come away with a different perspective on the world. The handful of bargain books you gain in the process is only the icing on the cake. I was cruising a thrifty book section just last week, in fact, when a particular title caught my eye: “The Scholastic Dictionary of Idiots.”
My initial hope was that this reference volume might help me keep track of who’s doing what (or failing to do what) in the Alabama legislature this year, a task which many long-time legal aficionados agree is even trickier than usual. I know for sure that in my own lifetime I’ve never seen such an aggravation...uh, aggregation of office-holders who could come up with more dumb ideas in as short a period of time. But alas, when I put on my reading glasses I discovered this factual boon was not to be.
The second-hand book’s actual title was “The Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms,” which is for the most part (more on which, later) a whole different matter. Seeing as this reference volume contained the origin of more than 600 American figures of speech between two covers, though, I decided I’d risk a buck on it anyway. It’s been a good educational investment. Among those 600 entries, there were bound to be a bunch that were self-explanatory. It doesn’t exactly take a cultural historian to figure out “over the hill” and “par for the course.” But there are dozens more good solid figure-of-speech puzzlers that the book’s editor sheds like on.
Some of them uncomfortably so, like “pay through the nose.” One theory is that in the 1600s a slang word for money was “rhino,” which was originally the Greek word for “nose.” But the more troubling possibility is that way back in the 9th century, the government of Denmark instituted a poll tax—not for all foreigners, just for us Irish. Those who didn’t pay up were punished by, yep, removal of their nose or at least a portion thereof. Which sheds light for me, at least, on the natural phenomenon of why my Scots-Irish kin and I have developed extremely prosperous noses in the thousand years since. We can defy nameless authority and societal penalties multiple times over and not only retain a functional nose, but still have left over the traditional notion (nose-shun) of a journalist’s genetic “nose for news.”
If that’s not a case for nasal evolution, I’ve never seen one.
But back to the business at hand, a highlight of the “Dictionary of Idioms” for me was the source of the popular figure of speech “every Tom, Dick, and Harry.” I had always assumed this was a spontaneous wisecrack by some populist newspaper columnist like Mike Royko or, even earlier, Ring Lardner, Jr. But, nope.
The Idiom Dictionary assures me that the great William Shakespeare coined this comparison for a play sometime around the year 1600 or so. Except that Shakespeare’s line was “every Tom, Dick, or Francis,” apparently made from the most common first names of Will’s era. A couple of centuries later, some commentator loved that idiom but updated it with the fact that “Harry” was a far more common name than “Francis”.
Therefore, “every Tom, Dick, or Harry.”
So. It seems that idioms evolve. Idiots, not quite so much.
Take Shakespeare, for example. In recent years, a political statistician submitted the outrageous idea that if somebody threw darts at a phonebook, the resulting participants would have more education, sense of reason, and political vision than the corresponding folks who had campaigned for election and won.
This year’s conglomeration of such in Montgomery, which bears no resemblance to the folks I spent years interviewing when I was an actual journalist, is an entirely different animal — for better or worse, mostly the latter.
Makes sense to me. Let’s say we pick Tom, Dick, and Harry for the state legislature. Then, Tommie, Richie, and Harriet for societal balance. Add Francis and Frances, and we’re covered. Otherwise, we’re back to the beginning. And sometimes that’s not a bad place to be. Because theoretically, a break from the routine is what a vacation is all about.
I hope to be home and see y’all soon.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com, and is archived afterward on his website.