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The surprising history of common words and phrases

Leigh James

Letter Press | freelance creative copywriter | South Wales | Devon

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Where do the words and phrases we use come from?

In the same way, teenagers are unlikely to relate the save icon in Word (a floppy disk) to any particular meaning, many of the words we use now have meanings from our past.

In a tenuous link to my business name, Letter Press, I dig into the history and meaning* of a handful of words and seemingly strange sayings we’ve integrated into our everyday language.

*Some explanations are a little more fanciful, but they make good stories.

Uppercase

Uppercase comes from the early days of the printing press. These letters were stored in the top section of a case.

Lowercase

Scan up… and swap the word uppercase for lowercase.

These cases held the font(s) of type.

Leading

The word ‘leading’ comes from the strips of lead hand-typesetters used to space out lines of text evenly. The word’s stuck – it’s used today in typography for line spacing.

Hot off the press

‘Breaking news’ aka ‘hot off the press’.

Newspapers were made with hot metal printing – molten lead was poured into the printing block moulds. The process was known as letterpress printing.

People who got their hands on the paper before anyone else were the first to get hold of a juicy story ‘hot off the press’.

Out of sorts

The phrase for feeling a bit iffy, not quite right, or under the weather is traced back to when you’d run out of a single piece of type (a sort, or letter).

Typo

It’s linked to putting a type back into the wrong space – this would lead to a mistake, typo, in the print.

Typo was the short form of typographer, and in the late 19th century became the word used for a typographical error.

A dab hand

Printers used a ‘dab’, a mushroom-shaped tool to apply ink onto the letter blocks. The person who’d make sure there was an even amount of ink was a ‘dab hand’. We’ve adopted this phrase for someone who has a knack or skill for something particular.

Taking a slight diversion, a ‘dab in the hand’ is meant as a bribe, and ‘dabs’ meaning fingerprints.

Against the grain

Doing the opposite or contrary to what’s usually said, or done. It’s a phrase that was apparently popularised by Shakespeare in Coriolanus (I haven’t read it). But it comes from cutting wood with the grain, to make sure there’s a smooth finish to the paper. It’s easier to print on paper made ‘with the grain’.

Come a cropper

It’s a near-miss with this one.

There’s a version that says Victorian inventor Henry Smith Cropper began selling a platen printing press. It was a successful design, and before long all platen presses were known as croppers.

It’s then suggested that ‘come a cropper’ derives from the unfortunate accidents print workers had when catching their fingers between the plates of the presses. Sadly, there’s no truth in it.

In the 18th century, anyone who took a headlong fall from a horse was said to have fallen ‘neck and crop’. ‘Come a cropper’ was a colloquial way of describing a ‘neck and crop’ fall, and is first cited in Robert S. Surtees’ Ask Mamma, 1858.

We now use the term for failing badly at something.

Mind your p’s and q’s

Elbows on the table. What the f!@k? It’s now used to tell us to mind our manners/watch our language.

A lovely theory is that printers had to warn their apprentices about the letters ‘p’ and ‘q’. Every character on a printing block looks like it’s facing backwards. But when they’re printed, they all read the correct way. P and q were commonly mixed up, causing errors. For example, equipment would end up as equipment.

You can go down a rabbit hole with plausible explanations, with lots of wonderful wordy possibilities with handwriting, please and thank yous, and more. I’m not sure which one, if any, is the right origin of the phrase.

Wrong end of the stick

If somebody gets the wrong end of the stick, they’ve misunderstood the facts in a case or story. A less heard older version suggests ‘to have the worst of a bargain or an argument’.

One historical meaning goes back to people fumbling in the dark, picking up the wrong end of the communal ‘lavatory stick’, used in times before toilet paper.

The Irish Times threw another origin in the mix, linked to printing. Stick was said to be an abbreviation for composing-stick, a hand-held device a typesetter used for composing text from individual letters.

The explanation says that if a compositor set type in the stick incorrectly, they’d got the wrong end of the stick. It’s doubtful this has truth – they’d have to be a poor typesetter to hold the wrong end of a composing-stick.

Perhaps the most compelling suggestion relates to a master beating their servant, with the servant getting the wrong end of the stick.

The modern British idiom ‘to give somebody stick’ has a similar theme of assault – physical turned verbal.

Make a good impression

Printers needed to make a good impression on the paper, to allow the ink to soak in.

Today, making a good impression is reserved for the first time you meet someone. First dates, interviews, networking events…

Cliché

French is not my forte. I’m led to believe cliché was the solid plate of type metal from a cast. The metal plate was used to reproduce prints or designs without variety.

This fixed printing cast is where we find the source of the recent meaning in the English Language – a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

It’s also given to the evolution of the word stereotype.

Stereotype

Sticking with a French theme, stereotype comes from ‘stéréotype’, in turn from Greek stereos ‘solid’. The French coined the word as a ‘method of printing from a solid plate’ a stereotype plate. The meaning ‘image perpetuated without change’ is first recorded in 1850.

Today a stereotype is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology as: ‘a relatively fixed and oversimplified generalisation about a group or class of people, usually focusing on negative or unfavourable characteristics’.

Typecasting

The process of shaping metal such a type is called casting. Typecasting is a nod to that. This is also where ‘to fit a mould’ and ‘break the mould’ come from.

More recently we use ‘typecasting’ to describe someone fitting a certain profile.

Ditto

From regional Italian ditto, it’s a variant of detto – a past participle of dire (to say). We use it now to repeat something that’s already been said.

The specific meaning of making copies of paper comes from the brand name of a spirit duplicator, you guessed it, called DITTO. The company’s logo was a single set of quotation marks, which we use to mean “ditto”.

The End.

Leigh James (that’s me) is a Senior Freelance Copywriter.

You can drop me a message, or scribble an email to me.

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