When I began researching phrase origins four years ago, I was really surprised at how many sources were incorrect on the origins of popular sayings and expressions. So much so that it prompted me to start collecting the most proper origins and begin publishing them. My initial book, titled On the Origin of the Cliches and Evolution of Idioms was released in 2011. After a number of people found it useful, but kept asking me to research other sayings, I assembled a second volume which I labeled All New Volume II.
But my research never stopped. Last March I released Most Comprehensive Origins of Cliches, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions, a 730 page volume containing all of the original entries of both books and hundreds more, sans pictures and personal remarks. It was on larger pages in smaller print. Then early this month I added 75 more, mostly by reformatting the entire book.
Below I will list only three of many improper findings in other publications.
can of worms, A
This metaphor is based on cans of worms which were sold for fish bait in the U.S. in the 1950s. Once they were opened, it was very hard to get the can shut so that the worms could not escape. Opening or getting into a can of worms became a figurative expression for bringing to light a matter which caused more problems than it did good and was not easily resolved. In spite of claims by other sources that the earliest citation is from 1955, The Bulletin for Atomic Scientists, January, 1951, page 6, contains the following figurative connotation in “An address (by Robert J. Oppenheimer) delivered to the Awards Banquet of the Science Talent Institute in Washington, D.C., March 6, 1950”:
“Perhaps nowhere has the impact of science more clearly altered the specific terms of a great political issue in the effects of political development on warfare. This is a can of worms with which I have myself unhappily been engaged for some years. It would not be honest to say— though it would not be foolish to hope— that the very terror of modem weapons would in itself put an end to war…”
Go off the deep end
Figuratively this means to become irrational in ones thoughts and act on those feelings without regard to responsibility. It is taken from jumping into the deepest part of a swimming pool, especially where the water is over ones head and the person is unable to swim. The earliest known citation, in spite of other published origins in the early 1920s, is in an article titled The Desert Air by Dornford Yates in The Windsor Magazine, August, 1919:
“‘They’re all right, as a rule,’ Berry was saying, ‘but every now and then they go off the deep end.’”
This modern metaphoric expression is applied to someone who is content with their present situation, and is likely used sarcastically in the negative more than the positive. In spite of numerous claims that it originated on a 1982 episode of Silver Spoons when Ricky (Schroder) and his grandfather went on a camping trip, there are two flaws in this. First, it was already in use at least a year earlier; second, the Silver Spoons use is a literal reference to camping.
Though it is likely that in a literal sense it started in summer camps earlier, the first citation of the phrase ‘happy campers’ in a non-camping context is from an article by David Bird in The New York Times regarding homeless men in 1981:
“It is not a group of happy campers that gets off the bus.”
Am I also subject to error? For sure. I just dug deeper. If anyone finds any entry in my book wrong, please leave me a message on my blog. It will be corrected in future printings.