Issue 191, page 1

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Phrases/Clichés that begin with C

A reader wrote asking about cook one's goose (discussed in Words to the Wise this week), and that piqued our interest in other phrases that begin with the letter c.  We don't discuss the origin of phrases often enough, we think, and this is our chance to catch up.

Carnival bell -- close but no cigar!Close but no cigar: This one is American in origin, though it is now used in Britain.  It is widely assumed that it arose in carnivals, where the prize for ringing a bell with a sledge hammer was often a cigar.  If you got close to ringing the bell but didn't actually hit it, you might be told close but no cigar.  The phrase then came to be used figuratively for any situation in which someone did not quite reach a goal.  It dates from the early 20th century.

Close quarters: The derivation of this phrase might seem obvious, but it actually has a naval origin.  It dates from the 18th century (1753 in the written record), when naval battleships were equipped with barriers behind which the crew could hide if the ship were boarded.  The barriers had holes in them through which the men could shoot their attackers.  If the crew had to resort to using these barriers, they were fighting in close quarters.  The term later came to refer to a tight or crowded space in general.  An earlier term was close-fight, which dates from 1602.

(in) cold blood: You may recall that in earlier times, people's moods were thought to be dictated by the temperature of their blood.  If they were hot-blooded, they tended to fly off the handle or be impetuous.  If they were cold-blooded, they were usually calm.  To do something in cold blood was to do it calmly.  Lexicographer Christine Ammer thinks that English simply translated the phrase directly from French sang-froid, but the OED does not mention this.  Byron uses the French expression in his Don Juan (1820), but it was around in English almost 200 years before that.  In fact, it was used to describe a murder as early as 1711: "It. . . looks like killing in cold Blood" (from Joseph Addison's The Spectator).

come off it: This sounds like teenage slang, but it actually dates from around the late 19th or early 20th century.  It is thought that it is an admonition to someone to come down from his high horse or other position of self-importance.

cramp one's style:  It was first used by the essayist Charles Lamb in 1819: "I will never write another letter with alternate inks. You cannot imagine how it cramps the flow of the style."  Now, Christine Ammer would have us believe that he was referring to writer's cramp in that sentence, but of course he was not.  Instead, he was using cramp to mean "restrict" or "interfere with" in general. Fauvel, the fallow-colored horse

curry favor: This is a bit of fun.  It dates from all the way back to the late 14th or early 15th century when it was curry favelFavel  was the name of a fallow-colored horse in an early 14th century French romance called Roman de Fauvel.  It is thought that the fallow-colored horse may already have been a symbol for dishonesty when the romance was written.  So to curry favel was to engage in insincere flattery.  The word curry had evolved from the notion of "brushing" to a figurative "stroking" of another's ego.  Favel was eventually folk-etymologized to favor, which made more sense to speakers once they no longer remembered who Favel wasThat change happened in the 16th century.

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