Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 11, 2011

"The sun, the moon and half of creation"

Husband Art and I routinely go to lunch every work day and sometimes our girls join us. On one such occasion, youngest daughter Katie talked about how "totes presh" something was.

"What?" I asked.

"Oh, it means something is 'totally precious,'" she said.

Another time, I pointed out a caption in the student newspaper that described a concert as "quite dope." Once again Katie clued me in. "That means it was really cool," she explained.

But it's not always the girls who have to explain their expressions to us. After Katie performed in a recent opera workshop at K-State, Art said he thought one of her fellow performers seemed like "quite a cut-up."

"What does that mean?" she said.

Art and I both jumped in to explain.

"It means someone who is high-energy, bouncing around, joking," Art said.

"Kind of like the 'class clown,'" I added.

That started a discussion about how much people use certain expressions or sayings in everyday conversations. Art is fond of using "a horse apiece" or "six to one, half dozen to another" to describe two equal alternatives.

An expression I've adopted was a favorite of late mother-in-law Rita who used it when she was irritated with something. She'd frown and say, "Doesn't that just frost your gizzard?"

Another one I use a lot is "busier than a one-armed paperhanger." It evokes an image of what I feel like when I'm trying to juggle several projects at work or home..

Many of the colorful phrases we use are rooted in history or fable.

I learned from a "Real Simple" magazine article that "spill the beans" originated in ancient Greece, where citizens voted with black or white beans. If a voter knocked over the jar holding the beans, people could see who was ahead in the election. Hmm ... a bit like our TV news anchors who want to "call" an election "early in the game."

Another example from the magazine was the expression "raining cats and dogs." Although its origin isn't known for sure, one theory is that heavy rains in 17th-century England turned streets into rivers that carried trash, along with dead cats and dogs.

Art's mother Donna was a literal fount of colorful expressions.

When she thought something was insignificant, she'd say, "It isn't worth the powder to blow it up" or "It didn't amount to a row of pins."

An expression Donna used when I interviewed her about her childhood is probably my favorite. I asked what she got for Christmas when she was little. "Well, you didn't ask for 'the sun, the moon and half of creation' the way a lot of kids do today," she began.

Donna was with my Mom and me one day on a trip to Council Grove. I stopped at the overlook on Highway 177 to "check out" the view of the Konza Prairie and when I opened the door, the wind whipped through the car.

"Oh my, I look like 'the wreck of the Hesperus,'" Mom declared, holding her hair down with both hands. She and Donna laughed and then launched into a discussion about where that expression might have come from.

I "looked it up" and found that "The Wreck of the Hesperus" was a dramatic poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and it was first published in 1842. The title phrase has been used as a colloquial term to mean a "disheveled appearance."

"Criminently! What can I say?" All these expressions "just boggle my mind." So I've "put on my thinking cap" to determine if this topic "cuts the mustard" as a column topic. Maybe "it's not worth writing home about." Maybe I had better "put the kibosh on it!"

OK, by now you may be "on pins and needles," so I'll close with a story! Sayings such as those in the last paragraph and ones invented by the younger generations not only add color and character to our speech, but they frequently allow us to express complex ideas in a sort of verbal shorthand. However, to make sense to the listener, he or she needs to be familiar with their meaning. The passage of time or coming from a different place frequently causes problems.

Both of these "came into play" a few years ago in one funny incident at our home. As a young woman, Art's cousin Claudia made a cross-stitch that she gave to their Aunt Dorothy. After Dorothy's death, it was given to Donna and eventually made it to our home where I hung it in our bathroom. One day when our German "daughter" Nadja was living with us, Art looked at it carefully. It struck him that the saying might be misunderstood by Nadja, so he asked. She said she had indeed wondered why we had a wall hanging that said, "Be happy and homosexual."

Well, that wasn't quite what it said. The actual phrase was "Be happy and gay."

OK, does that "wrap it up and put a bow on it?"

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