Recently, I came across some expressions like, shot of whiskey, buying the farm, passing the buck and cobweb, that we use in our everyday life and I wondered where they came from.
A shot of whiskey: By one account, a shot of whiskey originated in the old West. Of course, it has come to mean the amount of alcohol in a small container, now called a shot glass. In the town of Tombstone, Arizona, the cost of a bullet was 12 cents (that seems like a lot), and was equal to the amount of a serving of whiskey. If someone had no money, they would trade the bartender a bullet for a drink of whiskey. The glass was just what the “shot” was served in.
Then we have a second interesting explanation, closer to us from the town of New Waverley, in northern Indiana. It seems that in 1857 a local man was attempting to open a saloon against fierce local temperance opposition. His first stock of alcohol was a barrel of whiskey, which had arrived by train and was sitting in the open freight platform waiting to be picked up by the would-be barkeeper. A local man who was a temperance supporter fired his rifle from an upper floor window in his house and shot a hole in the barrel, draining all of its contents. Oh my gosh, what a waste. That scared the saloon owner so much he did not open the bar and ever after when the boys wanted to drink, they would ask for a shot.
Buying the farm: Of course this is synonymous with dying. One explanation of the origin is that during WWI soldiers were given life insurance policies worth $5,000, a great deal of money in those days. Many of the troops were unmarried young men, who named their parents as beneficiaries. Many of them lived on farms which were mortgaged. If the youngster was killed, the $5,000 would be used by his parents to pay off the mortgage. This was about the price of an average farm, so if you died, you “bought the farm” for your survivors.
Another source says it’s related to some sort of black humor, which is common among people in dangerous professions like Air Force jet pilots. They would tell friends that were going to buy a nice little farm and settle down when they retired, so if a fatal crash occurred, his buddies would say he had bought the farm or retired permanently. There’s the war movie from the 1940s where the pilot says that after the war is over he’s going back home, buy a small farm and settle down. Later in the movie, the soldier is killed and one of his friends muses, “Well, I guess Joe’s bought his farm.”
Passing the buck/the buck stops here: Most men in the early West carried a jackknife made by the Buck Knife Company. The handles were made of a buck’s horn. When playing poker it was common to place one of these Buck knives in front of the dealer so that everyone knew who he was. Players were highly suspicious because there seemed to be a problem with dirty dealing in bars. When it was time for a new dealer, the deck of cards and the knife were given to the new dealer. If this person didn’t want to deal, he would “pass the buck” to the next player. If that player accepted, then “the buck stopped there.” Silver dollars were later used as markers and this is the origin of buck as a slang term for dollar.
Now something that is in every house no matter how clean we are – the cobweb.The origin for this word is from the Old English word for spider which was “coppe.” The spider spins this web from spider silk excreted from spinnerets. Evidence of the webs existed at least 100 million years ago, where they were found in cretaceous Amber from Sussex, England. Insects can get trapped in the web and the spider uses them for food. Spider web refers to a web that is apparently still in use, while cobweb usually refers to abandoned webs.
I have also learned that not all spiders build webs, but I seem to have a lot around me that do!
Question of the day: If the professor on Gilligan’s Island could make a radio out of a coconut, why couldn’t he fix the hole in that boat?
(Melanie Behrens – email@example.com)
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