If you love words as I do, you’ve got to love history. Although many expressions that came into existence long ago are still in use and their meanings as idioms are clear to us, the original meanings of the phrases may be lost without a search in history. Sometimes the original meaning is lost because we use the words differently now.
Because the gun played such a large role in events over the last few centuries, many idioms are related to firearms of the past. Here are a few that are still widely used, but the context of their origination not widely known.
Lock stock and barrel is an expression we use to mean “all of it.” I used to think it meant the whole store, like a mercantile of some kind. It means the whole rifle or musket. The lock is the firing mechanism, the barrel is, well… self-explanatory, and the stock is the part that helps you hold onto the firearm.
Bite the bullet means exposing yourself to possible pain and danger to get a job done. Many people believe it originally meant to bite down on a lead bullet to endure pain, perhaps while having a surgical experience without an anesthetic, but it comes from a time when to prepare a rifle for firing you had to bite the end off a paper-wrapped cartridge before placing its contents in the barrel of your firearm. Doing this while under fire took brave resolve.
Stick to your guns means to remain true to principles or goals. The expression has less to do with guns per se and more to do with maintaining a particular post during the battle, especially if you’re told to hold a position without retreating. Well, of course, you will need that gun, won’t you?
Flash in the pan is an idiom we use to mean a great start but little or no follow-up. It’s a great metaphor for a one-hit-wonder in the music industry who puts out a single very popular tune, yet never does any better afterward and soon falls out of favor. To do justice to this one takes some explaining, so bear with me.
The original meaning comes from a time when pistols, muskets, and rifles had flintlock firing mechanisms. To load a flintlock firearm, gunpowder was poured into the barrel followed by a lead ball, called “shot,” wrapped in a bit of rag to make it fit snugly and hold everything in place. A small pan beside a hole in the side of the barrel was primed with a little gunpowder and then protected from spillage by a hinged iron part called a frizzin (see the diagramed illustration above). When the trigger of the flintlock was pulled, the hammer, which held a piece of flint did two things: it struck sparks off the iron frizzin and knocked that hinged part off the pan. With the frizzin out of the way, the sparks could reach the powder in the pan and ignite it. The hot expanding gas of the lit powder was meant to travel down the small hole in the side of the barrel and ignite the powder behind the lead shot. If this last step didn’t occur, there was merely a flash in the pan and the gun didn’t actually fire.
Understanding the metaphor of this idiom creates a mental picture that enhances the meaning of the expression. A flash in the pan is an exciting event, with a hiss, a flash, and billowing smoke, but the results are disappointing if that isn’t followed by the loud crack of the shot flying from the barrel and striking a target. Without the mental picture, some of the power of the expression’s metaphor is lost.
The original meanings of many single words are unknown to most of us today. I’m thinking of several having to do with the production of linen. A lining, like what you might have on the inside surface of your coat, means something made from line flax. Line flax is the fibers of the flax plant that don’t break off when run through a device that looks like a small bed of nails called a hackle (aka heckle). The fibers that survive going through a hackle and remain long are spun together to make fine linen thread (note the word “line” in “linen”). So a lining is something made of linen. The lining of my stomach or my water heater is not made of linen, though. When my dog gets upset, wants to look bigger and more threatening, he gets his hackles up, but that doesn’t mean he has metal spikes sticking up out of his back. In the past, the flax fibers that broke off short in a hackle were called tow flax. They weren’t good enough to make fine thread and were spun into a rough cord to make tow sacks, which are much like the burlap sacks of today. Tow fibers are very blonde, but a tow-headed child doesn’t have tow flax for hair even if the tyke is referred to as flaxen-haired. The act of drawing flax fibers through a hackle is known as heckling. The purpose was to worry, to tease (in the old sense, meaning to comb), and straighten the fibers to determine which would stand up to stress and were worth using for linen production. When a stand-up comedian is heckled, that doesn’t mean he’s drawn through a small bed of nails to straighten his fibers and break off his weak parts. Okay, so maybe it does mean he’s being teased, but still, you get my point.
Here’s an expression I like a lot: flotsam and Jetsam. It’s not the most commonly known phrase, but it’s still a fun one using curious words, and I want to use it in the last paragraph of this post. We use it now to mean odds and ends. For example, somebody might say, “The project is finished except for the flotsam and jetsam of small problems I discovered along the way.” Flotsam and jetsam are separate nautical terms, but frequently appear together, both as words and in the context in which the words have meaning. Flotsam is the remnants of a shipwreck that floats on the sea after a vessel has gone down. Jetsam is what is jettisoned from a ship going down to lighten its load and help it stay afloat longer.
In the time in which the idiom, flash in the pan, came into existence, the context from which it emerged was well-known to most individuals. An expression like that becomes popular perhaps because it’s frequently used in conversation as a metaphor in lieu of lengthier descriptions. If an idiom becomes useful enough that it’s overused and becomes cliché, it will be so universally understood that the significance of its original context can be discarded. It can far outlive the simple context of its birth. The idiom still performs a meaningful function although many who hear it and repeat it may not understand where it came from. Although the expression, flash in the pan is very much alive, having outlived the technology of the flintlock by more than a century, the metaphor it presents can be considered broken since most people today don’t understand how the firing mechanism works. I’ve heard and used many idioms for years in partial ignorance. As I became more interested in history, the original meaning of some idioms came clear. Finding the discovery satisfying, I became much more curious about the origins of words and phrases.
I like to think of idioms with broken metaphors as flotsam of history. The ship has long since gone under, taking its passengers with it. Phrases remain, floating above the wreckage on the surface like lost luggage, filled with words that once had specific meaning, and, in combination, still have an idiomatic meaning. The specific sense of the words might have been lost, but the phrases still have value. We all claim salvage rights from time to time, but often don’t ask the simple questions: Who owned these expressions and why did they find them valuable? If we seek answers to the questions, we can learn something about those who left them behind and perhaps find out why the phrases float so well even today.
—Alan M. Clark