I’m always grateful when someone thinks enough of one of my blog posts to share it with other people. Thank you!
I’m going to pay it forward this week by sharing a column written last week by San Diego author and language expert Richard Lederer. You may have heard him on the radio or attended one of his presentations. Richard writes a weekly column for the San Diego Union-Tribune called “Lederer On Language.”
His most recent edition focused on language we use today that comes from a time in history when America was mainly an agricultural society. People did what came naturally when looking for ways to express their thoughts: they took inspiration from nature, from gardening, and raising crops. Those metaphors we use all the time have lost their original meaning. Thanks to Richard, he explains where many of these terms came from.
It was catnip to a plant guy like me (see what I did there?). I had to share it with my regular readers.
Now I’ve been thinking of many other words and phrases. There are so many, Richard could write about them every week for months. I’ll add a few more just for fun.
Nip in the bud: This is to stop something early, or find problems early and correct them. This expression comes from a 1607 British play, describing a late spring frost that killed off all the emerging flower buds before they can bloom. The play was called “Woman Hater,” no kidding. Not much chance you’ll see this “comedy” on stage anywhere today.
Fruitful: To be fruitful is to be productive. This one goes back into ancient history right from the Bible: “Be fruitful and multiply,” as in the circle of life.
Barking up the wrong tree: This one describes hunting dogs barking at the base of a tree when they’ve scared their prey up into the branches. The dogs bark to alert the hunter to the presence of the hiding prey. But the dogs don’t always get it right. This is an American phrase used in the 1832 book “Westward Ho!” by James Kirke Paulding. It was so vivid it caught on quickly.
“Here he made a note in his book, and I begun to smoke him for one of those fellows that drive a sort of a trade of making books about old Kentuck and the western country: so I thought I’d set him barking up the wrong tree a little, and I told him some stories that were enough to set the Mississippi a-fire; but he put them all down in his book.”
Hedge: A hedge is a fence or barrier made from a row of bushes or trees. It has also become a verb, “to hedge” not from the thing it describes, but the way the word was used. To “hedge” a piece of land meant to limit its size. This eventually came to mean limiting your risk. Hedge funds take their name from their own method of limiting financial risk.
Knock on Wood: This is a little more difficult to trace. Woods and trees were associated with positive spirits by many ancient mythologies. In Irish tradition, it was considered good luck to tap on a tree to let the wood’s spirits know you were there and meant no harm. Some people think there is also an association with the Christian cross.
Shrinking violet: No one has ever described me this way! Wild violets are small, dark purple flowers , and in the shadow of trees and other larger plants they can be hard to see. Somehow their “shy” appearance came to mean someone modest or shy. “Shrinking” means retiring in this case, not literally growing smaller. “Shrinking violet” was first used in a British magazine article in 1820, and in an American literary magazine in 1825. By the 1890s, violets were extremely popular commercially sold flowers, third behind carnations and roses.
Here’s the funny part: violets grow like weeds both from seeds and from underground runners. A lot of people consider violets a pest in their gardens.
We talk so much about the benefits of integrating nature into the built environment and into our lives. If we give a thought to the many ways nature has inspired our language and expressions, maybe it will inspire you to bring the real thing into your daily life.
If you’re into gardening puns, there are entire groups on Reddit dedicated to them. That’s bananas!