Say What?

Expressions that were once common in everyday speech are often baffling to the modern ear. Although the origins of these sayings are lost in the murky mists of time, they are still around.

So, it’s time to take a closer look at these old expressions, if only to figure out what they could possibly mean.

Take, for example, “I’ll bet dollars to donuts.” Who bets with donuts? Has the phrase “I’m short on cash, so put me down for 20 glazed and 10 cake donuts for Lucky Lady to win in the fifth” ever been heard at the racetrack? 

And who would accept donuts in lieu of dollars, anyway? It would have to be someone with a serious sweet tooth.

Preaching to the choir also doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. Isn’t the choir always supposed to be listening to the preacher, along with the rest of the congregation? Why single out the singers for special mention? It’s not as if they can pop outside during the service to answer texts or take a smoke break.

An expression that’s usually accompanied with a rural twang is “that dog won’t hunt.” But honestly, how many dogs do? Sure, a canine may be persuaded to trot alongside a gun-toting hunter, no doubt lured by the prospect of frolicking through grassy meadows picking up dead birds on command. But a dog hunting on its own, just for fun?

I don’t think so, not unless the hunt is for tasty morsels, like slimy duck droppings by a lake. As far as I can tell, the average house dog mostly sleeps all day, with brief bursts of energy to eat and go outside.  

No, when you think of a stealthy hunting animal that doubles as a pet, it’s not a dog that comes to mind. That’s why the birds in my neighborhood have set up a tip line for the resident coyotes on the whereabouts of outdoor-roaming cats.

Apart from aphorisms involving donuts, church choirs or dogs, a real head-scratching expression for me is “she’s no better than she should be,” often darkly muttered by older females about younger women who seem to be having too much fun.

It’s easy to spiral into circular logic trying to figure this one out. Just how good should she be? Where is the bar she must cross before she can be better than she should be? Doesn’t “she’s no better than she should be” imply that she is already meeting the minimum requirements?

Another cryptic saying is “I’ll fix his (or her) wagon.” While it sounds like a kindly offer of help, it’s usually said with vindictive relish, making it highly doubtful that the vehicle in question was broken down in the first place. But if the wagon is indeed non-functional, it likely will be in worse shape after the “fixing” is completed.

I wonder if “I’ll fix his wagon,” said with a sneer, was a common threat on the Oregon Trail? Perhaps that’s how the phrase came into being.

If only some of those lazy, non-hunting dogs could be motivated to learn how to repair wagons and offer that service to those who need it, a lot of problems would be solved, and two of these baffling expressions could be retired for good.

But knowing dogs, I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts, or cents to crullers, or even bucks to bear claws that’ll never happen.

One comment

  1. Thanks for your etymology version of these phrases and idioms. It’s good to know there are those out there for whom the English language isn’t just a string of 4-letter words, but a rich legacy of cultural influences passed on from region to region and generation to generation.


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