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Anyone who learns English as a second language is a hero in my book. Seriously. There are so many rules that only apply half the time. And then there are the wacky phrases that get tossed about at whim, that have little or nothing to do with what is actually meant. I was confused by these colloquialism when I was young, and English is my first language.

So here’s a few more translations for idiotic idioms…

The Cat’s Pajamas ~ wonderful, remarkable

Cat in pajamas snuggling a teddy bearThe Cat’s Pajamas is one of the sillier colloquial conundrums. I first heard this expression when I was in grade school, while watching a black-and-white movie from the 1930’s. It’s disturbed me ever since.

The cat’s pajamas describes someone or something that is wonderful or remarkable. The American cartoonist, Thomas Aloysius “Tad” Dorgan, is credited with creating this whimsical phrase. The hipsters in the 1920’s used this expression to describe a person who is the best at what they do, or a person who was fun to be with. More recently it was popularized by the movie The School of Rock, starring Jack Black.

The cat’s pajamas is one of a handful of slang animal-centric expressions that came out of the 1920s. Others include the Bee’s knees, the canary’s tusks, and the flea’s eyebrows. Don’t worry. I won’t go there. (c) Can Stock Photo

Come Hell or High Water ~ a great difficulty or obstacle

Anyone determined to accomplish a task no matter what, will do it “come hell or high water”. It doesn’t matter how hard the task, or the odds against their success. They will get it done. Stubborn to the point of stupidity, but always in their favor.

This is an American expression, yet no one has discovered a clear derivation. Some think it may be an outgrowth of “the devil and the deep blue sea”. But that seems like a stretch, if you ask me.

Flooding street of a old West town, Universal Studios, CA

The earliest reference of “come hell or high water” was in the Iowa newspaper, The Burlington Weekly Hawk Eye, on May 1882. This seems fitting, as the saying rings with hardy Midwestern spirit.

The phrase became popular in movies in the early twentieth century, especially in Westerns. Cattle drives often involved crossing rivers and the large expanses of dry dusty plains. [Photo by moi: Western movie set, Universal Studios (CA) backlot]

Get Down to Brass Tacks ~ hard facts

BrassTacksThis phrase dates back to the turn of the nineteenth century, with its first appearance in January 1863 in a Texas newspaper. Other early occurrences are also from Texas, so it’s assumed that’s its place of origin. There are a couple of possible derivations for the phrase, and both refer to actual brass tacks.

The first theorizes that the brass tacks are the ones used in upholstery. Brass tacks have long been used in making furniture, due to their aesthetic appeal and ability to withstand rust. But that’s as far as the explanation for that theory goes. There’s no logical explanation that relates the meaning of the phrase to the brass tacks used in upholstering.

The most reasonable theory is about the brass tacks used as a measuring device for selling lengths of material in the old haberdashery trade. Measuring fabric by arm length wasn’t very exact. So to be more accurate, shopkeepers inserted brass tacks along the edge of their counters. When a customer purchased fabric, the cloth was measured along the counter using the distance between the brass tacks to determine the price. Hence the phrase, getting down to brass tacks.  (c) Can Stock Photo

Dead as a Doornail ~ devoid of life, unusable

This expression always bothered me. Of all things to compare death to, why a doornail? It made no sense. If it had to be a nail, why not a coffin nail?

Amazingly enough, the first reference of this phrase dates back to 1350. It appears in both the The Vision of Piers Plowman, and a translation by William Langland of the French poem Guillaume de Palerne. By the 16th century, the expression had become popular in England thanks to the lines Shakespeare gave the rebel leader Jack Cade in King Henry VI. Dickens kept the popularity growing by using the phrase in A Christmas Carol.

You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

close up of an old wooden door with a knocker

Doornails are large-headed studs that, in much earlier times, were used for strength instead of decoration. The practice was to hammer the nail through, and then bend the protruding end over to secure it. This process is called clenching, and is probably why a doornail can be considered dead. After a doornail is clenched it can’t be used again. Sounds true to me. How about you?  (c) Can Stock Photo