Sometimes we use crazy expressions like riff raff, showboat and barge in without knowing where or how they originated. Recently I came across some definitions and some explanations for their origin. I found it really interesting.
Riff raff means to us, worthless, disreputable or trashy. Here’s an explanation of that. More than 100 years ago, the Mississippi River was the main way of traveling from north to south. Riverboats carried passengers and freight, but they were expensive so most people used rafts for river travel. Everything had the right of way over rafts, which were considered cheap and, of course, flimsy. The steering oar on the rafts was called a “riff” and this transposed into riff-raft or riff-raff. It was a disparaging term and came to describe in its worst meaning trashy, worthless people.
On these riverboats, passengers stayed in staterooms as they do now aboard ships. Traveling by steamboat was considered the height of comfort. Passenger cabins on the boats were not numbered. Instead they were named after our states. To this day cabins on ships are called staterooms.
Many of these riverboats had another designation – showboat. These were floating theaters built on a barge (not a raft) that were pushed by a steamboat. Their shows played in the small towns along the Mississippi River. Unlike the boat shown in the movie “Showboat,” these did not have an engine. They were gaudy and attention-grabbing, of course, to attract an audience, which is why we say someone who is being the life of the party is “showboating.”
Not only were steamboats used to push the showboat along the river, they also pushed open barges, which hauled heavy freight along the Mississippi River. These barges were hard to control. They moved all over the place. Sometimes they would swing over into peers or bump other boats. People would say they “barged in” when they landed. The phrase has come to mean someone who possibly came uninvited or arrived in an obtuse way.
Then we have hogwash, meaning foolish talk or nonsense. The slang word came from the fact that steamboats carried both people and animals. Since pigs smelled so bad, they would be washed before being put on board the boat. The mud and other filth that was washed off was considered useless or “hog wash.”
When the first oil wells were drilled, there was no provision for storing the liquid, so they used water barrels. That is why, to this day, we speak of barrels of oil, rather than gallons. Of course, the price for a barrel of oil has now dropped from about $100 to about $30, making gasoline a cheap commodity … for now.
Then there’s the expression, hot off the press. Now we come to something I am really familiar with! A news press is a giant structure, spinning paper through it quickly and printing our newspapers. As the paper goes through the rotary printing press, friction causes it to heat up. Therefore, if you grab the paper right off the press, it’s hot (or at least warm). The expression means to get the facts immediately.
Oh how interesting our language is. Remember, it’s I before E except … when your weird feisty neighbor or his eight foreign heirs forfeit their beige heifers and seize freight!
(Melanie Behrens – email@example.com)
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