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Oct/Nov '99
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Colonial Phrase to Modern Idiom: It's Pot Luck

By D. Michael Ryan, company Historian with the Concord Minute Men, 18th Century interpreter with the National Park Service and Associate Dean of Students at Boston College.

"Flash in the pan." "At loggerheads." "Read the riot act." "A wind fall."

Colorful idioms all and what they share in common is a modern usage connected to an 18th Century past. While today's meaning may differ, these terms and others might have been heard around Concord Town in 1775. Come listen and discover the fascinating origins of some peculiar phrases.

When colonial gunsmith Joshia Meriam constructed a musket, it was usually accomplished and paid for in three parts - lock (firing mechanism), stock (wood), barrel (metal tube). Once completed the item as a whole was given to its owner. Today when one obtains an item with all its parts, it is owned "lock, stock and barrel". If militia man Thaddeus Blood placed his musket in the safety position (half-cocked) then entered battle, he had better remember to advance to full-cock or the weapon would not fire and he would be in trouble. A person "going off half cocked" in 1999 is not successful due to lack of preparation and forethought.

Nathan Stowe might prime his weapon (small measure of powder in the pan), load the main charge to the barrel, fire and only have the priming powder explode. This was known as a "flash in the pan" or misfire. Today, the term means a sudden brief success not likely to be repeated or followed by a greater success. Stowe might need a new flint but being unable to afford or unwilling to pay for such, he will take a knife and chip or skin pieces from the old flint until it is serviceable. Today, a cheap or thrifty person is called "a skin flint".

Sources:

"The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms", by E.M. Kirkpatrick and C. M. Schwarz, 1995.

"Colonial American English" by Richard M. Ledered, Jr., 1985.



Other idioms may be traced to 18th Century taverns. Thomas Munroe, tavern keep, might use chalk to mark upon his wall the bill of a patron who wished to pay at a later time. This was a reminder to collect owed money. Something is "chalked up" to experience in our world meaning that while unfortunate, it is not regretted but an attempt will be made to insure it does not happen again. An account mark is made in the memory. Today, people who quarrel or enter a confrontation are said to be "at loggerheads". Colonial tavern keep Amos Wright used a heated loggerhead (long metal bar with a ball on the end) to warm drinks. Patrons sometimes used them in fights.

Grog was a cheap 18th Century drink of rum and water invented by a ship's captain to water down sailor's daily liquor ration in hopes of ending drunken brawls. Today one who consumes too much spirits may appear "groggy" or mildly intoxicated. Keeper Ephraim Jones might yell to rowdy patrons to "mind their p's and q's" (pints and quarts of drink) and today the term still refers to watching ones manners and conduct; behaving properly. In 1999, a "rule of thumb" is a way to accomplish a task based on experience rather than theory or careful calculation. A colonial brewer (without a thermometer) would dip his thumb into a mixture to determine when the liquid was the right temperature to add the yeast.

If we receive unexpected good fortune (usually money) it is called "a wind fall". For Jonas Bateman in the 1770s it meant that trees or limbs were blown down and easily obtained for firewood. Also, the King's agents marked certain trees for use by the Royal Navy. Tampering with them resulted in severe punishment. However, if a storm blew the tree down, it could be claimed by anyone... a wind fall.

Have you ever been "read the riot act" or informed in an angry manner that your conduct was wrong and must stop? The Riot Act of 1715 was meant to address groups gathering and threatening the peace. A magistrate could read part of the Act commanding people to dispurse in the King's name or face action. In the 1880s Americans began using the term to mean "scold".

Purchase Brown, 1770s farmer, would "ear mark" his animals with a distinctive brand to denote ownership or purpose. Citizens would gather annually on muster day to watch the militia drill, enjoy food and drink, socialize and have a fun time. They had a "field day". When John Buttrick, Jr. retired for the night, he probably would sleep on bedding of straw and thus in today's usage he would "hit the hay". Meliscent Barrett might have the rope supports between the wooden sides of her bed frame tightened (no metal springs) to insure a good night's sleep. As today, she would be requested to "sleep tight".

When next you hear a modern idiom, ask if it has origins in the 18th Century and might have been used in 1775 Concord. In selecting to read this article, you took "pot luck" - what was available, not knowing for sure what you might receive. Had you visited my home or tavern 225 years ago and I not had the chance to prepare a proper meal, you would have eaten whatever was in the oven pot... taken a chance... taken pot luck.


Artwork: Rhymster


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