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 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”
|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.|