Mean What You Say, Know The Meaning of Sayings

Posted on June 21, 2016
English: A bandwagon in the 2009 Great Circus ...

English: A bandwagon in the 2009 Great Circus Parade, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few years a ago a friend of mine who teaches and does research through various universities was trying to rally some of her colleagues around an initiative and used the phrase, “Jump on the band wagon.” Shortly afterwards she was reprimanded by the administration for using politically incorrect language. Apparently the interpretation of the phrase she used was that it was racist. Confused?  So was she.

To me the phrase means, go along with an idea or get on board with an idea, but apparently the interpretation was somehow associated with First Nations and Inuit bands and in a derogatory way. It was only recently that someone was explaining to me the origins of the expression. It started with PT Barnum and he was referencing the band’s wagon.  That is the wagon the band performed on…no connection to First Nations or Inuit people whatsoever. It would seem the reprimand said more about the prejudice of the university administration than it did about my friend.

The bow of the ship

The bow of the ship (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The experience made me think about the origins of phrases that we commonly use, or as the case may be, expressions that we assume are commonly known, but are really regional in origin or known by specific people. A friend of mine once received a document from a client that was so full of local phrases she couldn’t make sense of it. She called me to see if I could help.  The client who lived on Canada’s east coast had used such lively phrases as, “cut of his jib” and “shipshape and Bristol fashion” and my personal favorite, “A shot across the bow.”

My friend had no idea what her client was talking about but as it happens, I could explain it, not because I knew the east coast of Canada, but because my family comes from an island and there are more than a few fisherman in the family.  The phrases that were stumping her were all nautical in their origins.

Using expressions and old sayings can add colour and interest to language and can even be instrumental to the adoption of ideas by making things sound more familiar to the recipients. They can also be distracting and disturbing if they are misinterpreted. Consider the expression, “cotton picking”, depending on context it can have a wealth of meaning. Does “Wait a cotton- picking minute” mean the same things as, “Don’t touch me with those cotton picking hands.”?

So before using them, know your audience and more importantly, say what you mean and know the meaning of your sayings.

Have you ever come across a phrase that left you stumped?  Or used an expression that made your audience confused?

Some expressions and their origins from the “Phrasefinder

Expression Meaning Origin
A shot across the bow. A warning shot, either real or metaphorical. The action taken by an approaching ship to warn off another.
Cut of his jib. His general appearance and demeanor. Some ships had more than one jib sail. Each country had its own style of sail and so the nationality of a sailing ship, and a sailor’s consequent opinion of it, could be determined from the jib.
Jump on the bandwagon Join a growing movement in support of someone or something The wagon the band performed on which would pick up followers as it made it’s way across a town on the way to the circus/performance.
Done a runner Leaving in a hurry under questionable circumstances. From running out of a restaurant before paying for a meal.
Quid pro quo. Something given in return for an item of equivalent value – like tit for tat. From Latin meaning, something for something.
Cotton picking minute bothersome, difficult or challenging Earliest reference from the UK and associated with the hard work of picking cotton.
Cotton picking hands referring to someone n a derogatory way Largely associated with the American south (though there are early references from the UK) and with the hands of the cotton picker, generally black person.  Can be interpreted as racist.
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38 responses to “Mean What You Say, Know The Meaning of Sayings

  • When I first moved to Milwaukee Wisconsin, I asked where the restroom was in the building of my office and was told it was next to the “bubbler”. I was completely confused until they explained that bubbler, in Milwaukee, means water fountain. I think we always have to be mindful of vernacular, particularly in business communications! But it also hold true for fiction writing. While one might want to infuse a local “feel”, you still have to understand that you are trying to appeal to the masses. But it seems to me that our English today is comprised of mostly vernacular or acronyms! It’s confusing!!!! At least to this old broad 🙂

    • Jacqueline I find that although our world is getting smaller, we keep find innovative ways to create barriers. The flexibility of the English language means that we can all be speaking the same language and still not understand a single word we’re saying to each other.

  • I like the fact that you can look up colloquialisms on the internet to find their meaning and origins. I really would like to see the same for the abbreviations used in texting! A new form for confusing communications.

    • Hahahahahahhahahahhaha…love it Simone. The funny thing I’ve noticed is that it isn’t my kids or nieces who put strange abbreviations in their text messages, it is the adults trying to be clever.

  • As much as I love the common regional phrases, there is a reason why they shouldn’t be used in business writing. In the business witing classes, for that matter all of my business classes, this was something that would hurt report scores.

    In online classes, writing is the primary form of communication. Bad habits tend to stick out.

    • I agree. Sometimes they get incorporated into business language as a way to make the message appear more local in origins…generally when the parent company is trying to convince local employees to change something or consider something. I get why it’s done, but it’s a dangerous game.

  • The origin of common English phrases is fascinating and I’ve learned a lot through reading historical fiction, especially one of my favorite authors, Edward Rutherfurd. It seems the origin of the expression ‘beyond the pale’ (meaning somewhat sketchy) derives from an actual place. Historically, the area that surrounded the old city of Dublin was called The Pale and going beyond it could be dangerous. Another common term, posh, actually derived from English people travelling by ship to India during colonial times. The favored cabins were port (left side) on the trip out, and starboard (right) on the journey home – hence POSH.

    • I love that stuff, I’ve heard the expression before and even understood the intention but didn’t have a clue what it was referring to. Thanks Louise.

  • Oh, and let’s add to the equation all those people (like myself) whose first language isn’t English – imagine how we feel about all those ‘local phrases’; we have just learned the common-for-all-English-speaking-countries ones and sometimes we confuse even them LOL

    I didn’t know any of the expressions listed here (and i think i would forget most of them pretty soon as i don’t see where and when i would use them!) – but it is a great topic and food for thought, Debra – thanks for the great read! 😀

    • Diana I’m always curious about how his stuff comes across to someone completely removed from the culture. When I was looking this stuff up I came across so many expressions that I had never heard of it became clear how easy it would be to create confusion.

      It is fun to see the things people say that seem perfectly reasonable to them but make absolutely no sense to me.

  • This was a fun read. I remember some of those old phrase and some of the puzzled looks I would get when using them in a sentence to express an idea. One was “A pig in a poke”. What it means is; “An offering or deal that is foolishly accepted without being examined first.” That said and to your point, when using a local or old fashion phrase it pays to check who your audience is. Or at least explain the phrase and it’s meaning and context to what your communicating. BTW: I actually understood all of those phrases… LOL.

    • I know the phrase, “A pig in a poke.” 🙂 The challenge is sometimes you don’t even realize you’re using a phrase. They are easy to use because they act as short hand to expressing an idea, I have to remind myself all the time to pull out all the colloquialisms.

  • A few decades ago, we used the phrase, Heavy, when referring to someone who was awesome. Today,If you tell any one, “Wow, you’re heavy!” they’ll take it as an insult. Another one we used was, Bad, which meant the opposite. Go figure. Blessings.

    • I remember using heavy and bad. 🙂 One that is still around is “cool” and “deep”. I can only imagine the response you would get if you used heavy today.

  • Of course now I can’t think of any except “raining cats and dogs” and I have no clue where that came from! Thanks for explaining jumping on the bandwagon – I use it all the time and I would be disappointed if it indeed was a racist saying! Nice post.

    • That’s a good one Laurie, “raining cats and dogs”. I like it because no one really knows where it comes from, but I think most people would get what it implies.

  • I was brought up on phrases as I guess adds color to the conversation. When you tell your kids that they are pig headed, they see pigs on their heads. I still use many of them like did you hear the scuttlebut? When anyone questions me on what I am talking about, I usually say, that I just got a text, with symbols I have no idea ROFL means, 33333 or :;) atleast I know what a smiley face is. Loved your article

    • Ha! Good text examples Arleen. ROFL is a variation on LOL (laugh out loud). It stands for “roll on the floor laughing”. With the addition of the “<" to make <3 it supposed to be sideways hearts. As to the semi-colon with the closed bracket…A wink and a smile? I think it's funny that none of the young people in my life use the abbreviations, it's just the adults trying to look cool. 🙂

  • Hello; This was a fun post. Considering that I make my living selling amusement equipment and believe myself to be pretty knowledgeable about all aspects of it; i was surprised to find that the only phrase i didn’t know the origin of was band wagon. smile I am familiar with a lot of the british sayings because of listening to broadcasts of tv shows in the u k that include an audio described track for those of us who are blind. The narration makes it easier to follow along, but you have to figure out what some of their sayings mean. and done a runner is one of my favorites. Its a staple of cop shows. as a blogger I make a special effort not to use phrases that may not be readily understood by my international audience. thanks again for the reminder and take care, max

    • Max isn’t it amazing the continued influence the UK has on our language? Makes you wonder if North American expressions have made their way into their language as well.

  • I think this is a great article. Very interesting about the origins of phrases. Can you imagine how complicated it would be to try to avoid offending if trying to communicate in another country?

  • Interesting–where expressions come from. Makes me wonder about some of the phrases i use. Also, makes me think of the difference between connotative and denotative meaning–what something means now vs. what something meant then. And, in your opening example, I can picture the self -appointed “politically correct police” jumping in just like that. Oy.

    • That’s exactly the challenge with expressions Sean. Whether your making something up based on what an expression brings to mind or missing what the implications of the origins, its a good way to land in difficulties, even if they are imaginary difficulties.

  • I always enjoy your posts, Debra, and this was no exception. I love using expressions when I am talking, but I have also found that using them in blog posts does help to illustrate a point. However, as you say, it does require a mutual understanding of the origin and/or meaning. If followers of your blog might like to have a look, I wrote ‘The Phrase “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” is due a Revival!” a couple of years ago to highlight the need for proofreading services. This is one of the expressions you have referred to in your article. Thank you once again, Debra, for a lovely post. http://www.proofedbylinds.co.uk/the-phrase-shipshape-and-bristol-fashion-is-due-a-revival/

    • Lindsay I went and took a look at the article. I love that you argue for the return of the expression and why. I think your right, a proof reader would help you capture so many pitfalls (traps)…hmmm I think “pitfall” may fall into the category though it is only one word.

  • jbutler1914 says:
    January 29, 2014 @ 02:42 pm

    Interesting post. I have never heard some of those sayings before.

  • Am really tired of every word or image having to be politically correct. In Sweden the whole concept has gone out of hand. For at least 60 years there has been a brand of candy that had a cute drawing of a chinese face with a hat on the bag. Suddenly a teenager adopted from Korea decided he felt humiliated by the drawiing so the maker had to come up with a new design. Whenever someone writes something about how wrong honour killings are some person argues that it’s a religious right, even though it has nothing to do with Islam. And heaven help you if you use the word Gypsy instead of Roma. Jumping on the band waggon is an expression I have used a lot and simply cannot comprehend how it can be considered racist. Sometimes have a feeling that in developed countries some people, mainly academics, are so spoilt they make an issue out of a foot note instead of looking at the whole text.

    • It boggles the mind how preoccupied we can get with things that are irrelevant, but it happens. I’m hoping that the university in question got the hint because she was so annoyed after they reprimanded her that she left that university for another one and took her large research grant with her. 🙂

  • Funny that a saying can be interpreted as racial. Some of the sayings you mentioned are new to me. You are right, we can all speak English and still not understand a single word we’re saying to each other. It is very much true in the multi-cultural Toronto.

  • Here is where being a voracious reader comes in handy 🙂 One of my favorite aspects about teaching To Kill a Mockingbird used to be engaging the students in discussion of dialect pronunciations and colloquialisms. So much more is wrapped up in language than just words. The words we know shape our world and vice versa.

  • Being from Australia, we have a few phrases and sayings that confuse American’s. I think it is the same the world over – we just get to know a lot of the American sayings as it is a culture that is rather dominant in English speaking countries. Looking up their true meaning may be a great place to start as to not offend though.

  • I enjoyed reading your post. I agree, it is good to mean what you say and know what you mean!

  • It’s funny, I have managed in Call/Contact centers for many years. One of the items that we teach new hires are all the department, company, and industry jargon. Then, as soon as they are ready to take calls on their own, we tell them not to use “jargon”. I know when I first moved from New Hampshire to Kansas to attend college, people in classes and friends I developed were always talking about this thing called Pop. I thought their Dad or Grandfather was coming by. No, sadly they were referring to soda. Maybe that’s why I preferred beer so much during college, it was universal.

    Great post! Thank you for sharing!

  • I take jump on the bandwagon as joining a group or cause. Or perhaps following whatever it is. I would think most adults growing up would have heard it in that context and take it that way.

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