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The News in Slang
February 2023

NEWS FLASH!  …. Freedom and the world seem increasing pressed between a rock and a hard place, as we wait with bated breath in the Mexican stand off that has become the tragic war in the Ukraine.

NEWS FLASH!  ….  Zelensky begs for tanks. Senators Blumenthal, Graham, and Whitehouse feel it’s time to bite the bullet, and send them. Others in Congress, fear a haywire escalation that unless kiboshed, could spiral into WWIII.

NEWS FLASH!  …  It is feared that an increasing unstable and pressured Putin, seeing the handwriting on the wall, that his days are numbered, and that he’ll be dead as a doornail if he doesn’t win in the Ukraine, may, as a parting shot, unleash a blockbuster nuclear Armageddon.

                                                                   …

No, these are not real news flashes from ABC, Fox, CNN, or any of the other news outlets, though they do reflect “info clips” from various news sources and not just the grapevine. I present them here as an eyeopener to how heavily “slang” infiltrates and encapsulates real life, and our day-to-day language. Every high-lighted phrase above, though commonly heard and used today, was born of a past event. We take commonly used words, phrases, “slang,” for granted, without really knowing their origin, which in some cases is much different than the meaning of the word today. Anyhow, in case you are curious to know, here’s the skinny on the above phrases.

Pressed between a rock and a hard place.  This American phrase rose out of the “Great Bank Panic” of 1907 and its aftermath, especially as experienced in mining communities. The miners had to choose between very dangerous underground work for little pay, or no money and utter poverty. Now we use the phrase to denote having to choose between any two equally undesirable choices.

Bated breath.   You’ll often find this also spelled with an “I” (i.e.“baited”). However, without the “I” it makes more sense, as the word “bated” is actually a shortened form of the word “abated,” which means “cut short,” “stopped,” “lowered,” “depressed.” So, the common-use meaning of “bated breath” today is “holding ones breath in uncertain or nervous anticipation.”

Mexican Stand Off.   According to Wikipedia, this term stands for “a confrontation in which no strategy exists that allows any party to achieve victory. Any party initiating aggression might trigger everyone’s demise. At the same time, the parties are unable to extract themselves from the situation without suffering a loss. As a result, all parties need to maintain the strategic tension, which remains unresolved until some outside event or inter party dialogue makes it possible to resolve it.”  The movie visual that perhaps best captured a Mexican Stand Off, was the classic closing scene of Sergio Leone’s 1966 Western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That was make-believe. In real life, it was played out four years earlier with much bigger guns in what is remembered as,“The Cuban Missile Crisis” (16-29 Oct.,1962). We’d hoped we would never see ourselves in this scenario again. Never say never.

Bite the bullet.  Before anesthesia, soldiers would chomp down on a piece of wood, or in the case of the Civil War, the lead of a bullet to make it through the pain of battle wound treatments. Today the phrase has morphed to mean “suck it up,” when up against something extremely unpleasant.

Haywire.   This word is used to denote something that has gone awry, in an unpredicted and bad way. Similar to the connotation of the term, “gone south.” The wire used to bale hay (Hay wire) is notoriously springy, flexible, prone to kink, twist, and tangle.

Kibosh.  As in,“The President kiboshed the bill with his veto.”  It means to totally stop something in its tracks. The word actually derives from the Gaelic word, “cie bais,” which was a symbolic black hat a judge would don before sentencing someone to be executed.

Handwriting on the wall,  and, Days are numbered.   Both these terms harken back to the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament.  King Belshazzar and his troops desecrated the Temple of Solomon, and used the sacred vessels they pilfered from there for their wine goblets. During their feast, mysterious writing appeared on the wall, written by an ethereal hand.  The writing heralded that the King would die, his days numbered. Actually, a very low number. He was murdered that very night.

Dead as a doornail.   Of course, a nail is never alive, so cannot actually die. But the term stemmed from 14th. Century carpentry practices of reinforcing doors by hammering any nails that protruded through doors flat on the backside. This prevented them from working their way loose or being easily removed. They would stay put.

Parting shot.   This term takes us back to ancient times, and the Parthian army. They had a battle strategy of pretending to be done with battle and beating a seeming retread, only to suddenly and unexpectedly turn and fire off a deadly volley of arrows from horseback.  We use the term to denote a final insult, or biting “last word,” fired off when the other party thought the verbal scrimmage was over.

Blockbuster.   This is a word now used entirely differently than it originated. Today it denotes a big budget movie. But it actually is a WWII British term that denoted massive bombs they used that weighed up to 12,000 pound, and were capable of leveling an entire block.

Grapevine.   This word, often used in the phrase, “heard through the grapevine,” is an American Civil War expression of passing on info by word of mouth, “verbal telegraphs” so to speak.  Since some permutations occurred “along the line,” the “grapevine” was not always accurate. Today the “grapevine” often denotes “gossip,” which can be equally inaccurate.

The Skinny.  American slang term denoting “inside information,” presumed to be accurate, same as “the straight scoop.”

Let us pray for WORLD PEACE.  That phrase would surpass all the aforementioned, and need no expounding or explanation.

Anthony dela Torre
Author

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