In Season 2 of “America’s Secret Slang,” entitled “Straight From the Horse’s Mouth” (Season 2/Ep. 1) we continue to break down the secrets behind the phrases we use in the American-English language each and every day.
“Our history is embedded in the things we say every day. Words and phrases work their way into our language through the things our ancestors ate, the games they played and animals they kept.”
As a writer and research-enthusiast, I wanted to get the skinny on America’s secret slang, so I went straight to the horse’s mouth, Zach Selwyn, host of one of my favorite television shows, “America’s Secret Slang.”
Animals in our Language
If you have ever questioned the value of a gift someone gave you, then you are most definitely guilty of “looking a gift horse in the mouth?”
If someone were to give you a horse as a gift and the first thing you did was to check his mouth to see if he was “long in the tooth,” then that would be very insulting to the person who gave it to you, and it will also probably be the last present they ever give you. You should always appreciate a gift; just smile and say, “Thank you.”
You can however admire the horse’s coat, but if the card that came with your gift says, “Enjoy your brown horse,” and your four-legged friend is clearly black, but you can’t tell what the card says because you can’t read, then you just might have been given “a horse of a different color.”
Speaking of horses, way back when they outnumbered cars on the street by huge numbers, you can image that we had a lot of horse manure around. Birds used to flock the streets of New York City (and I assume anywhere else that there was poop) and they would eat the seeds (and oats) in the horse poop. Each time a horse would relieve himself in the streets someone might say, “That’s for the birds.”
A Gift from Rome
Sheep have always been prized for their wool. The Roman word for wool was “burra” and those crafty Romans used burra or wool to cover their desks. I bet sheep were relieved when people discovered leather as an infinitely better desk covering, but I can also bet that the cows weren’t quite as happy. Frankly, I never realized that Romans had such an affinity for desk coverings; that was until Zach “let the cat out of the bag” and told us that the word burra is where we get the words “bureau” as well as “bureaucracy.” You just knew the government would have their hand in this, didn’t you?
And while we’re on this sheepish subject, of course you know that light wool is a lot easier to dye than dark wool, right? So if someone was going to be a serious, “dyed-in-the-wool” colorful sweater maker, they would probably separate the black sheep from the rest of his family when it came to sheering time, and that’s why the one who stands out and is considered the trouble-maker in your family, may be called the “black sheep of the family.”
Certainly I’ve merely skimmed the surface of what this episode covered, and I could probably sit here and “chew the fat” with you all day on how America got its slang, but we can pick this up again at another time because thankfully there’s a whole new season ahead of us. Don’t forget to watch “America’s Secret Slang” on the History Channel’s H2 network on Saturday evenings at 9 PM (EST) because I think it’s the “coolest thing since sliced bread.”