Sowing Wild Oats

by Joanne Mason on July 1, 2017

Photo by Joanne Mason

Not long ago, a friend and I were walking through a local park and discovered some wild oats.

“Who sowed these?” my companion asked.

The literal answer was probably park employees or volunteers. But the idiom goes far beyond that.

To sow one’s wild oats is to behave recklessly, adventurously, or promiscuously.  It’s often used to describe young adults.

Example 1

Lenora is partying her way across Europe this summer.  I think she wants to sow some wild oats before she starts working at the family business this fall.

Example 2

Lou’s grandmother told him to date lots of people while he’s young.  She thinks if he sows his wild oats now, he’ll be better prepared for marriage later.

Young people have been sowing their wild oats for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first reference is from 1576, when Thomas Newton translated Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius’s Touchtone of Complexions:

That wilfull and vnruly age, which lacketh rypenes and discretion, and (as wee saye) hath not sowed all theyr wyeld Oates.

But Robert Hendrickson suggests that the phrase is much older than that, noting that Roman comic and playwright Plautus used in it 194 B.C.

No matter when it was first used, its origin appears to be straightforward.  Wild oats are weeds, ones you would be foolish to sow in your field. Here’s what The Western Producer had to say in a 2015 Weed of the Week column:

Hugh Beckie of Agriculture Canada’s Saskatoon Research Centre said wild oats remain of the 10 worst annual weeds that cereal producers must contend with worldwide.

Now that my local park has literally sown some wild oats, I’m curious to see what happens!  As for the idiom, I wonder if the definition has expanded to refer to a rite of passage in some cultures.  What do you think?


Bats in the Belfry

by Joanne Mason on October 25, 2015

Photo by Sgarton via

Photo by Sgarton via

It’s almost Halloween here in the U.S., so I thought it would be fun to explore some “scary” idioms. Today, it’s bats in the belfry.

I don’t know about you, but I think bats are pretty frightful creatures. I know they have good qualities. They eat lots of pesky bugs and spread seeds in the rain forests and all, but my two encounters with bats still make me shiver.

The first time, I almost stepped on the poor thing as the cat circled it and yowled.  I was brought up not to use curse words and rarely do, but the vitriol that spewed from my mouth that night was legendary. I woke up my roommate, who sat bolt upright, wondering what on earth the cat could be doing to make me shout expletives like that.

The second time, the fluttering of its wings woke me up – and then it hid when I turned on the light. I called a friend for support and with him on the phone, I gingerly nudged the curtains with a broom handle, bracing myself for it to fly out (like a bat out of hell).

But back to the idiom.  If we say someone has bats in the belfry, we mean that person is eccentric.  Some would say crazy.

Example 1

Doris swears it’s going to snow in Miami on June 19th, but I think she has bats in the belfry. 

Example 2

When the boss said we’d be working all weekend, we looked at him like he had bats in the belfry. 

The Oxford English Dictionary places the first recorded use of bats in the belfry around 1901, which surprised me. I thought it would be much older. Its origin is pretty straightforward, too. You might have seen bats flying haphazardly around a bell tower. If a person has bats in the belfry, his or her thoughts have the same erratic behavior.

I’m sure anyone who heard me swearing at that first bat thought I had bats in my own belfry.  He was probably just as scared of me, maybe even more. Fortunately, both bats were safely removed from the home, perhaps full of stories to tell their grandbats about their weird human encounters.

What are some of your favorite scary idioms?


Dog Days

by Joanne Mason on August 26, 2015


Reva appears in a constellation of Christmas lights. Photo by Laurie Jameson

I just heard that it’s National Dog Day!  To celebrate, let’s talk about the dog days of summer.

Usually, the dog days are at summer’s peak, when it’s too hot to do anything except lounge around with a glass of iced tea nearby.  You feel sluggish and unmotivated.  Okay, well, I feel sluggish and unmotivated.

Example 1

Olivia didn’t want to have her outdoor wedding during the dog days of August. 

Example 2

Tyler felt too lazy to look for a job during the dog days. 

Dog days has more to do with astronomy than our canine pals, however.  The story begins with the star Sirius, often called the “dog star” because it’s part of the Canis Major (“the greater dog”) constellation. (Sirius is the dog’s nose.)  The ancient Greeks and Romans noticed that when Sirius rose before the sun, the hottest days of the year had arrived.

These days are typically from July 3 to August 11 in the United States, but they are subject to change.  In fact, some astronomers believe that thousands of years from now, the dog days will occur in the winter.

The phrase was eventually translated from Latin to English during the 1500s.  The Oxford English Dictionary puts the first use of dog days in 1538.  Early on, the phrase had a more ominous slant that suggested bad things to come.  Now, it’s mainly used for those lazy summer days.

What do you think of the dog days?

Learn more:

Why Do We Call Them the ‘Dog Days’ of Summer? (National Geographic)

Sirius: Brightest Star in Earth’s Night Sky (

Why are they called the “dog days” of summer? (

Flea Market

by Joanne Mason on October 28, 2013

flea market

The other day, a friend was telling me about some old electronics he’d found at a flea market.  They included a cassette tape player from the 1970s and a big box of 8-track tapes.  The items were in great condition and he was thrilled his purchase.

When you visit a flea market, you can check out second-hand goods from many vendors all in the same place.

Example 1

Francine’s entire house is furnished with items she has found at flea markets.

Example 2

I dread when my husband goes to the flea market.  We have too much stuff in our house already!

I found two possible origins for flea market.

Robert Hendrickson says the term has nothing to do with fleas.  He and others believe it goes back to the Dutch colonization of present-day Manhattan, where a “Vallie Market” was held on Maiden Lane. This term eventually morphed into “Vlie Market.”  Vlie was pronounced like flea and the name stuck.

The Word Detective shares a similar story, attributed to etymologist Christine Ammer.  Apparently, there was a “fly market” in Manhattan that began before the American Revolution and lasted into the early 1800s. It had been previously called the vly or vlie market, using the Dutch word for “valley.”  These words were pronounced like flea, giving us the name.

But other sources, including Gregory McNamee, author of the 2013 Word Origin Page-a-Day calendar, places the origin of flea market in Paris, where a certain outdoor market was once called the Marché aux Puces (flea market) because some of the used clothing of bedding for sale would be full of fleas.

And in 2009, Matt Gross gave us this explanation in the New York Times:

The marchés aux puces, or flea markets, of Paris are legendary. In fact, the name itself originated at the biggest and most famous, St.-Ouen, just outside the city’s ring road at Porte de Clignancourt, where back in the 1880s (according to, a Web site run by the Association des Puces de Paris St. Ouen) an “unknown bargain hunter” looked down from nearby fortifications, observed junk dealers selling scrap metal, rags and old furniture, and exclaimed, “My word, but it’s a market of fleas!”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, flea market made its first written appearance in English in 1922, when George S. Dougherty wrote in his book In Europe, “It is called the ‘Flea’ Market because there are so many second hand articles sold of all kinds that they are believed to gather fleas.”  The Word Detective suggests that if the term’s origin came from the New York market, it would have appeared in print earlier than that.

What do you think? Do you go to flea markets?  If so, what are some of the interesting things you’ve seen there?  Have you ever had a problem with items, having fleas?


Skinny Minnie

by Joanne Mason on July 12, 2013

My cat has been overweight for some time now.  But at her recent vet appointment, we learned that her new diet is working.  Brushing her that night, I said to her, “Before we know it, you’ll be a skinny Minnie.”

Wait – a what?  I never hear this term nowadays.  It’s something my parents used to say and I’m sure that’s how I learned it.  But it’s not something I’d say readily and I wondered where it had been lodged in my brain.

The phrase skinny Minnie refers to an exceptionally thin woman.

Example 1

We’re worried about Jessica’s new diet.  She’s becoming a skinny Minnie and doesn’t have much energy lately.

Example 2

There’s so much stuff packed into the antique shop.  You have to be a skinny Minnie just to look around.

I didn’t find much on the origin of this skinny Minnie.  But I did learn about a 1958 song with this title by Bill Haley and His Comets:

Here are some sample lyrics:

Well, slightly slimmer than a fishing pole

She’s one half rock and the half roll

Well, dig that chick from either side

And man, you’ll yell, “Where did she hide?”

Skinny Minnie, she ain’t skinny

She’s tall, that’s all

According to, “Skinny Minnie” peaked at #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, so perhaps the phrase started as late-1950s American teenage slang. 

Over 50 years later, I have to wonder whether a song with this theme would even be recorded in America, especially with concerns about weight and eating disorders. The term popped up last fall when New York retailer Barney’s gave Disney’s Minnie Mouse a makeover.  The advertising campaign drew criticism for its depictions of a garishly thin Minnie who, according to some observers, was sending the wrong message about body image.

What do you think?  Do you hear the phrase skinny Minnie often?  If someone called you a skinny Minnie, would you take it as a compliment? 


Sell Like Hotcakes

by Joanne Mason on May 10, 2013

After all these years, I still remember this McDonald’s breakfast jingle by heart:

I was 10 when this commercial was popular and what struck me then was the word hotcakes.  We called them pancakes where I lived.

But whatever they were called, I remember McDonald’s hotcakes being a huge favorite and I wouldn’t doubt that they…well…sold like hotcakes.

When a product sells like hotcakes, it sells quickly because it is in high demand.

Example 1

Milk, flashlights, and batteries sell like hotcakes when there’s a big snowstorm in the forecast.

Example 2

Since the band is playing here for only one night, I’m sure the tickets will sell like hotcakes.

Sell like hotcakes is thought to be an American phrase from the 1800s, hearkening back to church and county fairs, where hotcakes were sold to lots of hungry customers.  The OED‘s first reference is from 1839.

But Mental Floss poses another possibility.  In certain cultures, such as Britain, Australia, and Canada, pancakes are typically eaten on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday).  Doing so gives families the chance to finish off the milk, butter, and eggs that are often given up for Lent.  And even if the hotcakes are not being sold, they probably go quickly!

Which explanation makes the most sense to you?   Do you know of any similar phrases from other languages or cultures?  Please feel free to share them in the comments!

(By the way, it may not be Shrove Tuesday, but if you’re in Springfield, Massachusetts tomorrow morning, check out the World’s Largest Pancake Breakfast, an annual tradition in that city.)


Turn a Blind Eye

by Joanne Mason on May 8, 2013

Map with Telescope

At my friend’s condo complex, you’re not allowed to have bird feeders.

She’s not sure why. It may be because bird feeders attract not only birds but squirrels and chipmunks. And mice, if the bird seed isn’t stored well.

But my friend loves feeding the birds, so she takes her chances with the rules. She hopes that her neighbors will turn a blind eye when the cardinals and goldfinches come to feast.

In other words, she hopes they will ignore the bird feeders or pretend they don’t know about them.  If this happens, no one will file a complaint with the condo board.

Here are some other examples of turn a blind eye:

Example 1

Tanya makes a lot of personal calls from the office, but the boss turns a blind eye.

Example 2

I don’t know how Sherry can turn a blind eye to her husband’s many affairs.

Unlike so many other idioms, turn a blind eye has an origin we can pinpoint.

The story involves British naval commander Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), who lost sight in his right eye while serving in the Mediterranean.  Years later in 1801, under the command of Admiral Hyde Parker, Vice Admiral Nelson fought with the British against a Danish-Norwegian fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen during the Napoleonic Wars.  At one point, Parker was standing on land and couldn’t clearly see what was happening with the battle. Thinking Nelson might be in trouble, he hoisted a flag to signal orders to withdraw.

Nelson thought these orders were unfounded and instead of obeying, lifted his telescope to his right eye and reportedly said to his flag captain Thomas Foley, “You know, Foley, I only have one eye – I have the right to be blind sometimes.  I really do not see the signal!”  The British went on to win the battle.

Some say the story is just a myth, but the expression has stayed with us for over 200 years.

Have you ever turned a blind eye?  What happened?

References: – Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Copenhagen (by Kennedy Hickman)

Admiral Lord Nelson and His Navy – The Battle of Copenhagen

BBC History – Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson (1758-1805) – 10 Common Sayings With Historical Origins (by Evan Andrews, April 23, 2013)


(Photo by daniel_wiedemann via istockphoto)


Shrinking Violet

by Joanne Mason on May 6, 2013


Last Friday, I read the following tweet from @BobKievra, the city editor at the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram and Gazette:

Funeral director for Tsarnaev is no shrinking violet – Worcester Telegram & Gazette –  #BostonMarathon #Worcester

Kievra is referring to Peter A. Stefan, the Worcester funeral director who is handling the funeral arrangements for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died on April 19.  You can read more about Peter Stefan, and his business, here.

A shrinking violet is a shy or modest person, someone who doesn’t want to be in the limelight.

Example 1

I don’t think Bill will get the promotion because he’s such a shrinking violet. We need a manager who is outgoing.

Example 2

At the high school dance, several freshmen stood by the wall like shrinking violets. 

Like many idioms, shrinking violet doesn’t have a clear origin.  The OED’s first reference is dated 1915.  Could it be that the violet is such a delicate flower that, in some kind of flower battle, it wouldn’t stand up for itself?

I’m not sure.  I like how Christine Ammer’s take on it in her Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches:

Why the violet, a small but common shade-loving perennial, should be chosen to designate shyness is unclear. On the contrary, violets can boldly take over patches of ground, and gardeners may even find them difficult to eradicate from unwanted spaces.

Indeed, as Ammer might have predicted, my childhood back yard was full of violets and every spring I picked dozens of them for my mother, who displayed them in colorful bud vases on the kitchen window sill.  Mom loved them, but Dad, who took care of the yard, considered them weeds and wanted to get rid of them. Fortunately, my aunt, somehow, intervened and the violets were there to stay.

What do you think?  What might be the association between violets and shyness or modesty?  Do you think the color violet plays a role in the origin of the phrase?

(Photo by sjonja via istockphoto)

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Everything But The Kitchen Sink

by Joanne Mason on May 3, 2013

Kitchen sinkWhen you pack for vacation, what do you bring with you?  Do you travel light?  Or do you take everything but the kitchen sink?

If you take everything but the kitchen sink, your luggage is very heavy! You bring everything imaginable, even things you might not need or want.

Example 1

Francine took everything but the kitchen sink with her to the beach: smartphone, tablet, MP3 player, books, magazines, sandwiches, fruit, cookies, two pairs of sandals, sunscreen, board games, sand toys for her kids. I don’t know how she got it all in one bag.

Example 2

What’s in the casserole?  Everything but the kitchen sink!  I put all the leftovers in a dish and see how it turns out.  Sometimes it’s delicious. Sometimes it’s not.

My research hasn’t turned up any definitive origins for this phrase, although it appears the phrase started out as everything but the kitchen stove.

The OED’s first reference for everything but the kitchen stove is from 1927 in Edgar Wallace’s The Feathered Serpent:

‘Got everything on except the kitchen stove,’ said Mr. Crewe pleasantly… ‘You’re a fool to go out with all that stuff on you.’

Everything but the kitchen sink might have come a bit later, according to the OED. In 1948, the lexicographer Eric Partridge explained it in his work A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang, 1939-1945, a compilation of slang from the military. From the OED:

Kitchen sink, used only in the phrase indicating intense bombardment—‘They chucked everything they’d got at us except, or including, the kitchen sink.’ ‘The kitchen stove’ was also used.

While the phrase may be from the military, I’d still love to know how kitchen stoves or sinks were added to the mix.  Anyone have any ideas?

(Photo by Creativel via istockphoto)



by Joanne Mason on May 1, 2013

In the limelight

We’re going to do something a little different today and look at a specific word rather than a phrase.

Yesterday, a reader named Laurie asked me about the word limelight. It’s a curious word for sure.

If you’re in the limelight, you’re the center of attention.

Example 1

Cassie is nervous about her upcoming wedding. She hates being in the limelight.

Example 2

Our stand-up comedian friend loves the limelight, but I wish he didn’t monopolize every party by trying out new material on unsuspecting guests.

On the surface, it seems like limelight must have something to do with lime (the material) or limes (the fruit).  And it turns out the former is true.

In the 1800s, the English inventor Sir Goldsworthy Gurney discovered that when he added lime to an oxyhydrogen flame, the result was an intense white light. Gurney was able to light his house with his invention and, later, lit the Houses of Parliament this way. Limelight was also used in lighthouses because it gave off much brighter light than the candles that were used at the time.

The invention of limelight is sometimes attributed to Thomas Drummond, a Scottish engineer, who found other ways to use it.  Limelight became popular in theaters in the 19th century because it could focus the audience’s attention in a specific direction. Thus, actors could be in the limelight.

What do you think about being in the limelight?  Do you like being the center of attention?  Or would you rather be in the background?

(Photo by aceshot via istockphoto)