Specialized Phrases in General Usage
July 30, 2007 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Is there a name for phrases (or sometimes words) that have lost their previous specific/narrow/jargon meanings and are now used generally in a wide variety of situations with little or no knowledge about their prior usage? Are there lists of them anywhere with the phrases and explanations?

As examples, I'm thinking of calling "shotgun" to reserve the right to sit in the front seat of a car (which comes from riding in wagons in the old West) or the phrases "to win hands down" or "get the lead out" which both come from horse racing.

I am NOT looking for words that come from the names of specific people or groups that have taken on a general meaning, like sadist, assassin, vandal, etc.
posted by andoatnp to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

here's a list of them. and another, with some meaning guesses/explanations.
posted by irregardless at 12:58 PM on July 30, 2007

I think irregardless has it with "idioms." The lack of obvious connection between the current meaning and the origin of the phrase can make them puzzling for English as a second language learners; there are many, many books of idioms and explanations (some with origins) geared to ESL students. That might be a good paper source for you--check ESL sections of libraries and bookstores.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:19 PM on July 30, 2007

Hundreds of modern idioms are derived from seafaring jargon. Amazon lists a half-dozen or more books discussing these phrases and their origins:

When a Loose Cannon Flogs a Dead Horse There's the Devil to Pay: Seafaring Words in Everyday Speech

Ship to Shore: A Dictionary of Everyday Words and Phrases Derived from the Sea

posted by ROTFL at 1:28 PM on July 30, 2007

Response by poster: I think most (all?) of what I'm describing are idioms, but I think idioms are a much larger category and I'm only looking for a specific subset of them, which I'm hoping have their own name so they are easier to find. Idioms just seem like figurative sayings which have a non-literal meaning that have to be understood in advance for them to make any sense.

As an example, I wouldn't call the use of "shotgun" to reserve the front seat an idiom... it's more of a word of jargon that took on a generalized meaning and over time many people continued using it without know where it came from.
posted by andoatnp at 1:34 PM on July 30, 2007

Sorta like decimate or dilemma? They both are applied to situations somewhat removed from their original meanings. This usage could be called idiomatic, I suppose.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:44 PM on July 30, 2007

How about debased words or phrases for the case where someone does not understand the meaning of the word or phrase's source.

In discussion of metaphors one can make the distinction between a base concept (or word or phrase) and a metaphorical extension of that base.

Of course one could claim that most meanings are debased when you don't know the full etymological history of a word.

[ An idiom is a word or phrase whose meaning is not just the sum of the meanings of its parts - the meaning of idioms has to be separately learned ]
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 2:05 PM on July 30, 2007

The words idiot, imbecile, and moron were once official psychological terms to describe certain IQ levels. Moron was an IQ of 50 - 69, imbecile was 20 - 49, and idiot was below 20. Now we use all three words as slang for someone who's not too bright.

I was also told that the phrase "sleep tight" was from the days when mattresses were just flat pillows stuffed with corn husks, and they were suspended on a rope net that was strung in the bed frame. You had to tighten the ropes every now and then to keep the bed firm.

Is that the type of thing you're looking for?
posted by christinetheslp at 2:15 PM on July 30, 2007

It sounds like you're looking for a term to classify all the words/phrases that have undergone linguistic widening or semantic extension/shift/change. In the cases that you're seeking, the word/phrase becomes polysemous, and then its orginal meaning weakens or disappears altogether. I can't find an overarching term to describe the entire category of words that have changed, but that makes sense, because the meaning of all words changes, all the time and it'd be hard to come up with a name for a category of things where the members of that category change so often that the category itself becomes incredibly hard to define. But for what you're specifically asking, "idiom" seems best. Maybe try doing a search for a polysemes list and/or an idiom list.

I keep thinking of an example I learned of linguistic widening: shuttle. We talk about taking a shuttle somewhere, but the word is actually an extrapolation from its original meaning, and is now unrelated/unattached from that meaning (shuttle originally only referred to the part on a sewing machine or weaving machine that held thread back and forth).
posted by iamkimiam at 2:16 PM on July 30, 2007

I think I would call it "usage drift" but I'm sure that's not a formal term in linquistics.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:18 PM on July 30, 2007

I was also told that the phrase "sleep tight" was from the days when mattresses were just flat pillows stuffed with corn husks..

Just as an aside, that's not well supported; it used to be standard history museum interpretation, but there's no evidence of it until the twentieth century, when rope beds were a lot more rare. A lot of origin stories for idioms are apocryphal.
posted by Miko at 2:27 PM on July 30, 2007

Fowler (Modern English Usage) calls this a Popularized Technicality. The book will be in any library. Be sure to get the second edition, or perhaps the first, and avoid the current third edition, which omits this and many other valuable articles.

My pet peeve is "epicenter," a technical term in geology meaning "the point on the earth's surface directly above an earthquake." Thus it means "not really the center, but as close as we can get," but is used by careless writers to mean "really, REALLY the center."
posted by KRS at 2:29 PM on July 30, 2007

Dead metaphor?
posted by phoenixy at 4:03 PM on July 30, 2007

"Hanging up" the phone is the most obvious I should think
posted by A189Nut at 4:32 PM on July 30, 2007

And "dialing" the phone or "ringing" someone up.
posted by scheptech at 8:11 PM on July 30, 2007

the term "stress" was appropriated by Psychology from Civil Engineering. I'm sure it is still used in Engineering, but it's pretty much become a word associated with people's state of mind.
posted by hector horace at 9:17 PM on July 30, 2007

phoenixy: Dead metaphor?

Actually I think the term opaque metaphor might be slightly more standard. Particularly from a theoretical perspective where words or phrases take on a new meaning mediated by a metaphorical mapping to a prior meaning.

I think many more people understand somewhat "kick the bucket", "pig sticker", and "squeal like a stuck pig" than realize the mappings to traditional pig butchering. A a live pig was hung by its ankles from a wooden beam called a "bucket" and its jugulars were severed with a special "pig sticking" tool, the pig "squealed like a stuck pig", and in its death rattle it kicked the bucket a lot.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 5:55 PM on July 31, 2007

In addition, a dead metaphor like "eye of a needle" is considered dead because an understander does not have to consciously understand it by thinking about a human eye. Though if told that eye is is a metaphor and asked what it is based on, the questionee will probably mention a human or animal eye.

The definition of an opaque metaphor is that people use the word or phrase without understanding what it is based on.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:18 PM on July 31, 2007

Two posts above I should have given Google counts for various phrases. Most writers of these don't understand the underlying metaphors and thus for them it is opaque.
  1. kick the bucket - about 232,000 hits.
  2. squeal like a stuck pig - about 3,080 hits
  3. pig sticker - about 15,000 hits

posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:44 PM on July 31, 2007

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