Etymology From The Epidemiologist, part 2


Today’s post is about language, specifically the historical origins of certain phrases, like a follow-up to this post. But first, a quick note about a TV show…

As has been well established, I’m a huge, nonsensical and fanatic devotee of the long cancelled TV show, Stargate SG-1.  I tend to re-watch at least one episode every week. It’s a kind of comfort food. Maybe one day I will explain why.

A comment on io9 earlier today []
A comment on io9 earlier today []

I was just re-watching the episode called “The Fourth Horseman“, (season 9, episode 10).  In one of the throwaway scenes, a scientist tries to affect a sample of tissue contaminated with an alien disease by exposing it to…. heavy metal music.

The music was provided, supposedly, by the fictional metal band, “Dark Pariah”.  Turns out there’s a real band by that name (possibly formed after the episode aired).  Some clever person has replaced the original music that was used with a selection played by the actual Dark Pariah.  Here is the clip:

Finally, I have found some reference to someone else who (finally) located the actual music that supposedly was exposed to the tissue in the episode that aired.  It’s “Infinity” from Robert J. Walsh, Dennis Winslow and Ronn L Chick, from their Album “Deutsch Rock And Metal Angst”.

So now you know, too.

And now on to the main part of today’s program: some more etymologies of English language phrases so common that they have become cliches:

(1) Acre

An acre is actually an old Saxon term originally describing the amount of land that a yoke of oxen could plow in one day.  Cool. huh?

(2) A Square Meal

Ever heard the term “three square meals a day”? Usually used to describe a living situation in which proper meals are provided?  Ever wonder where the “square” part comes from?

Well this one is tough.  A documentary I saw recently suggested the term originated from the British Royal navy, from about Georgian times, when complete meals were served on boats.  But the plates would slide around on the table. So often the plates were placed within a square wooden tray, hence… square meal.

However, there is some evidence that the term is of American origin, and actually younger (1800s) than first thought, denoting a “fair” meal, as square has been known to mean “fair” for several hundred years.

(3) Show Him The Ropes

When you start a new job, often a senior worker is brought in to “show you the ropes”, as in to familiarize you with the workings of the place.

The term originates from the British naval tradition, when a new sailor would have to be taught the differences between the various types of rigging.

Consider the following passage from Sail Ho! My Early Years at Sea, by James Gordon Bisset:

‘It was a long time before I “learned the ropes” which meant learning that there are very few “ropes” in a sailing vessel. The average landsman might think that the standing rigging and running gear of a large sailing craft is a “maze of ropes.” In a literal sense he might be correct, as the top hamper of a windjammer consists chiefly of a complicated arrangement of wire ropes and hempen (or manila) ropes connected with the spars and sails and manipulated with tackles and other gear.’

(4) A Loose Canon

This too has a naval origin. It comes from the era of wooden war ships, in which the canon would be well secured. But if one pulled loose during battle, it would cause much chaos and mayhem:

‘From the 17th century to the 19th century, wooden warships carried cannon as their primary offensive weapons. In order to avoid damage from their enormous recoil when fired they were mounted on rollers and secured with rope. A loose cannon was just what it sounds like, that is, a cannon that had become free of its restraints and was rolling dangerously about the deck.’


There you go. Until next time!