CATEGORY: COL Columns (Journal)


HED:Phyllis's Sept. 27 column

When you throw the baby out with the bathwater, you've overdone things or gone a bit far in whatever you're doing, but I've found little information about the origin of the common phrase.

One wordbook says it is probably of British origin, and traces it back to the 1940s, and another quoted the proverbial German "Das Kind mit dem Bade ausgiessen."

The baby-bathwater saying is from a list of column fodder provided by my neighbor Marcelle Bethany, who also asked why a stingy person is called a tightwad or skinflint. Webster's merely defines tightwad as "a close or miserly person," and a skinflint as "a person who would save, gain, or extort money by any means."

The descriptions remind me of Ol' Rewf, that fellar at Fawn Grove who wasn't always driving the team that was pulling his wagon. Rewf was so stingy, he'd skin a flea for its hide and tallow.

Rewf was so parsimonious, he would have whitewashed his own mother and rented her out to haunt houses. He was tight as the bark on a sycamore tree.

When something is dead in the water, it is dead indeed, though I'm not sure why. It probably has to do with some kind of water transportation, though I've found no reference to the term.

Marcelle also asked about "can't hold a candle to," which means one person or thing is inferior to another. Some sources suggest the saying has to do with testing eggs by holding them in front of a candle's flame, which may or may not be true.

The Morris Dictionary says it goes back at least to the time of Shakespeare when there was no street lighting. Important men, when they were out at night, had a boy along with them to carry a torch or candle to light the way. These linkboys accompanied their important masters to and from the tavern or theater, lighting the way, but even so were considered inferior beings.

"To say that Tom 'couldn't hold a candle to' Harry meant that Tom was much inferior to Harry," according to the Morris tome. Well, maybe so.

During a recent conversation with Janie Malone, she mentioned hearing about someone falling off, which we both understood. "Fell off," in this usage, means losing weight.

I remember hearing such descriptions as a child and wondering what the person fell off of. At a family reunion, Susie Mae might observe, "Aunt Maybelle sure has got fleshy since I saw her last year; she needs to fall off." One who had gained weight was "gettin' fleshy."

Some of the old words and phrases have fallen by the wayside, but we still say things that don't make a lot of literal sense. Marcelle asked about "in his heyday," which is commonly used today to describe a time when a person was at his or her best.

One dictionary traces the term back to 1526 "used to express elation or wonder," and to 1590 meaning "high spirits," or, "the period of one's greatest strength, vigor, or prosperity."

These editors say both uses are archaic. Be that as it may, the word remains in common usage, and not just among hill folks.

After wondering about the term "to boot," which I knew meant something extra, I was surprised to learn that "boot" in this case has nothing to do with the things we wear on our feet.

It is from the Anglo-Saxon "bote" or "bot," meaning "advantage or profit," which is another example of how language fails to follow predictable patterns.

Both "bote" and "bot" are long obsolete, but "to boot" is still with us.

Phyllis Harper is Daily Journal feature editor.

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