Will Edwinson

Author & Storyteller

Will’s Trivia Corner—American Slang

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Will Edwinson

A bit of slang trivia this week.  As I have stated in past posts, one of my favorite TV channels is Turner Classic Movies.  How many remember the old movie short “The Passing Parade;” those one-reel tours of places or events of interest around the globe. I was tuned to the Turner Classic Movie channel a while ago when one of those old Passing Parade features came on.  This particular segment made reference to the two official languages in America at that time—English and slang.  (Those two preceded the two present official languages—English  and Spanish, you know, push one for English, push two for Spanish.) 🙂 It went on to describe how some of the slang expressions we use came into being; many of which, had their beginnings in legitimate language usage. For instance, “watch your Ps and Qs.”  This one had its beginning in association with the business term Prices and Quotes.

This Passing Parade segment also featured a story about the origin of the term “Fink,” which is quite often used as a disparaging description for someone of whom we are not too fond.  According to the tale, a certain community had a gun toting bully who had the townspeople convinced that no one could out shoot him, and seemed always to be spoiling for a fight.

This gent evidently came into some good fortune one night and entered a bar where he offered to buy everyone a drink.  Of course being the bully that he was, no one dared to refuse to drink with him; except one lone man sitting at a table over in the corner.  This irritated the bully, and as the evening wore on, he decided to show this young whippersnapper he was not one to be ignored or reckoned with.  The young man sat smoking a cigar, which the gunslinger shot from his mouth then turned back to the bar and proceeded to pull a horn from a bottle of whiskey.  (Pull a horn, it would be interesting to learn where that expression came from.)  But I digress.  Just as the bully put the bottle to his lips, it was smashed from his hand by the young man’s bullet.

This act established a mutual respect, and the two men became good friends—and drinking buddies— until a later date when a young lady came into the picture.  The bully took a shine to this fair maiden, but she favored the younger man, and a challenge was issued.  The older man said they would have a “shootin” match, and the winner would get the young maiden.

The duel was arranged; a sort of William Tell affair.  They were to take turns shooting objects off one another’s heads until one missed.  This went on for several rounds with each round shooting at a smaller object sitting atop the opponent’s head.  It finally got down to a whiskey shot-glass as the target.  The younger man hit his mark shattering the glass.

Now it was the older man’s turn.  He shot and missed the shot glass, but got his opponent right between the eyes.  Even though he denied it, no one knows to this day whether he was off his aim, or if he shot the young man on purpose.  Most people thought he did it on purpose, and that’s how the term “Fink” came into being.  The man’s surname was Fink, so from that day forward, anyone who turns a bad deed toward a friend was referred to as a Fink.

This Passing Parade short piqued my interest in how slang expressions came into being, so I went on the Internet to see if I could find the origins of any more of these expressions.  I found a few more.  The term, “he’s got something up his sleeve,” allegedly had its beginnings at the gambling table with a card shark who kept a winning card (usually an Ace) up his sleeve.  Another one, “he doesn’t have a China man’s chance,” is supposed to have come from the California gold fields and the building of the railroad.

Chinese workers were hired to set the charges in the gold mines, and in the rock cliffs for the railroad  beds.  This was dangerous work and quite often resulted in their not surviving the blasts.  Hence the term, “doesn’t have a China man’s chance.”

Two more: Well-heeled, and Kick the Bucket.

Well-heeled is usually associated with being wealthy, but the source that I found for this term says it has its origin back to cockfighting.  The owners would tie spurs to their bird’s heels to give them an advantage.  A bird with no spurs was referred to as being naked heeled. It is said the term well-heeled became popular after Mark Twain used it in one of his stories.

Kick the bucket which is usually associated with death has two origins.  The first has to do with hanging.  The person being hanged was allegedly put atop an overturned bucket which was kicked out from under him causing him to hang to his death( this version has never really been substantiated, however).  The second, which is largely accepted as the more accurate origin of this term has to do with pig slaughtering.  When a pig was slaughtered, it was hung by its feet to a rail called the bucket beam.  In the last throes before death its feet would bang against the beam.  Thus the term “kicked the bucket.”

I also learned from this bit of research that there is a regular slang dictionary.  It might be an interesting project to study more of these slang origins.

If you enjoy reading about things of yesteryear, you might like to read my book,  Buddy…His Trials and Treasures about a young boy growing up during the 1940s.  Follow Buddy and cousin Mont as they gather bottles out of the barrow pits along the highway(which gets them into trouble, by the way) or fishing for Carp in the irrigation canal,  or swimming in the favorite river swimming hole, The “23” and learn why it’s  called the 23.  You can get a free copy of the first three complete adventures by clicking on the free download button at upper right of this page.  A print copy is also available for purchase at www.amazon.com.


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