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A colloquialism is a word, phrase or other form used in informal language.

Parents can say some pretty weird things. My father grew up in Iowa, the heart of the Midwest, so some of the things he said seemed weirder than normal to us California-kids. Like the time he scolded my sister at the dinner table, saying she was “As independent as a hog on ice.”

Our reaction: “Huh?” (Could’ve been, “WTF?” but we weren’t allowed to swear.)

Hog on ice

Seriously. We’d lived in Southern California all our lives and had never seen ice or hogs in real life. We just stared. He took our stunned silence for acceptance and compliance, which was probably a good thing. For a lot of years, I assumed the hog-on-ice thing was an my dad’s own home-grown Iowanism. That is, until I started on my writing journey.

When I started writing, I started to notice all the odd informal sayings we used every day. I knew the implied meanings from the context in which they were used. But the meaning itself? Not so much.  That’s why I decided to take on a handful of these oddball sayings…

“As independent as a hog on ice” Flailing about

Strangely enough, I’m not the only one who has been confused by this saying. This phrase has been baffling people for decades. Yes, decades! Etymologists started searching for an explanation from the time it first appeared in the mid 19th century. In 1948 Charles Earle Funk titled his first book of word origins “A Hog on Ice”. His foreword contains a seven (7!) page narrative of his inconclusive quest for the roots of this phrase.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as “denoting independence, awkwardness, or insecurity.” That about sums it up for a hog that’s slip-n-sliding across the ice, much like Thumper and Bambi in the Disney animated feature. “You’re doing it your way, and making a mess of it,” was what my father meant by his independent-as-a-hog-on-ice speech.

Time magazine usage in 1948, “They like to think of themselves as independents … independent as a hog on ice.”

“In two shakes of a lamb’s tail” Fast, really fast

In general usage, it is easy to infer that this phrase means “a very short period of time”.LambsTail

But why a lamb’s tail, of all things, to measure time by? Seriously. A little historical sleuthing uncovered that this is phrase is a distinct Americanism that dates back to the early 1800’s.

Apparently, a lamb can shake its tail pretty darn fast, much faster than other animals. Who knew? The term crossed “the pond” during the World War I, and became popular as British army slang.

“Bite the dust” ~ To die

Tomb stoneI always associated this phrase with westerns. So I was not too surprised to discover that it was made popular by American westerns of the 1930’s. Picture a cowboy falling to the ground after being shot, and quite literally biting the dust when he lands face down. Because of its association with westerns, I was completely taken aback that the phrase actually dates  back thousands of years before, to Homer’s Iliad. The following  translation was made by American poet, William Cullen Bryant, in 1870:

His fellow warriors, many a one, fall around him to the earth and bite the dust.

Some might say that Bryant introduced the phrase in his interpretation of Homer.  But I’m not going to argue that point. It works for m.

The phrase also appeared in the mid 1700’s in Tobias Smollett’s translation of Alain-Rene Lesage’s novel “Gil Blas (1715-1745):

…we make two of them bite the dust.

Again, the accuracy of the translation could be open to debate. However, I think it’s interesting that traces of the phrase date so far back.

“Till the cows come home” ~ A very long time

If you grew up in a city with no exposure to cows or farm life, this phrase makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. That’s because the expression alludes to cows’ fondness for extended leisure time out at pasture where there is lots of green grass to munch on. The cows would only rush back to the barn when their udders hurt and needed milking.

The phrase originated back in the late 1500s to early 1600s. But again, it was the cinema of the 1930s that made the expression popular. Groucho Marx used it in Duck Soup (1933) when he said to Margaret Dumont,

I could dance with you till the cows come home. Better still, I’ll dance with the cows till you come home.

Cows in a green pasture

Images: morguefile.com

What’s your favorite confounding colloquialism?