So to speak

The Web is rich with idiomatic phrases and their roots. Sites hed: So to speak dek: the Web is rich with idiomatic phrases and their roots.

Some interests descend upon you gradually. For me, it was a fascination with idiomatic expressions. I slowly began to realize how ubiquitous they are in our conversations; someone is always asking, Where did that expression come from? Finally, struggling from the depths of my subconscious came this amazing revelation: There must be answers on the Web.

I was in for a doozy of a time. When I got down to brass tacks, I found that the Web would not necessarily make short shrift of my quest. Sure, there are lots of helpful sites, but there exist a few red herrings as well. There was no one “real McCoy” that had the whole nine yards, so to speak. Still, there were plenty of sites that were more than up to snuff. Wilton’s Word and Phrase Origins site, for example, gives definitions and origins of the seven (I admit, painful) idioms found in this paragraph.

Often, nobody has any idea where or how a phrase originated. Such is the case, unfortunately, with the still-popular “the whole nine yards.” Many, however, have traceable roots and satisfactory descriptions. The phrase “the real McCoy,” for example, originated as “the real MacKay” in 1856 in England, referring to a brand of whiskey. Often, words or phrases have older roots or different origins than commonly believed. For instance, it turns out that the word cyber predates its association with space by at least 50 years, if not 150. Here’s Wilton’s definition:

Cyber: The combination form cyber-, used in such terms as cybernetics and cyberspace, was coined in 1948 by Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), an American mathematician. He derived it from the Greek kubernetes, or steersman, which is also the root of the word govern. Wiener may have based his word on an 1830s French usage of cybernétique, which meant the art of governing.

If there’s one thing literary sites have in common, it’s cross-referencing. The more ardent you are about accurate etymology, the more disagreement–and sources–you’ll find. WebFusion’s English usage page is a discussion group intended for serious word devotees, yet its links are a must for casual inquiries as well.

WebFusion sent me to YourDictionary, a reference site with pronunciation rules, rhyming and anagram dictionaries, cliché finders, and lists of abbreviations and acronyms, along with the usual reference sources. For my purposes, I most appreciated its link to the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by E. Cobham Brewer (1894), found on the Bibliomania site. The Bibliomania site may be the best general reference site on the Web, containing free full-text versions of many fiction and nonfiction books, articles, poetry, interviews, and other works, such as the Koran and the Bible. From there, I visited Xrefer, “the Web’s reference engine,” which allows you to search multiple sources-dictionaries, encyclopedias, laws, history, literature sites, and others-at one time.

With that, I cry quits. As for you, take time by the forelock, break a leg, and more power to your elbow!

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