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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Getting Information

Where did some of our common-place, but odd-sounding, expressions originate? Not everything can be covered here, but a few have been discussed, such as "cotton to" something or "in cahoots." If your ancestors used some of these phrases, you might find it interesting to learn why!


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Genealogists are often confronted with terminology that their ancestors understood, but whose meaning has been obscured over the ages. Some of the phrases may still be in existence and even the meanings may be the same, but the reasons for the interpretations have been lost to time. I asked some people, who have been following my Lost Lexicons articles, to come up with some words and phrases that they have been curious about. This is the compilation of some of these requests.

What is meant when someone refers to items or product as "truck," e.g., "I don't need that truck"? It is clear that the speaker is not referring to a vehicle. In the 1500s, the noun "truck" was first used from the earlier, common word that was a synonym for "barter." In the new form, "truck" referred to things that were bartered, literally meaning "dealing" ("Have no truck – or dealing – with unsavory people"). However, about 280 years later, "truck" further metamorphosed to mean things (primarily produce) that were marketed, and a "truck farm" was where vegetables were raised and then "trucked" to market (Barnhart, p. 1171). Obviously, it has been altered even more to mean "things" in general (often appearing to be less than desirable, but that would be a matter of perspective).

What are "cahoots" in the phrase "those people are in cahoots"? And can people be "out of cahoots." Well, perhaps, according to etymologist Alfred Holt, who has extensively examined this phrase. He is convinced that it refers to cahute, meaning "little house." In this rendition, the little house is one that is known as a gathering location for people of less than stellar reputations. While it is true that "cahoot" resembles "cohorte," the Oxford English Dictionary does not support the notion that the former is a derivation of the latter (pp. 44-45).

When we "pull our chestnuts out of the fire," how does that relate to the figurative interperetation of this phrase: "to be used for the advantage of another"? This comes from a story of a monkey, a pet who was allowed to live, uncaged, in the home of his master. One day, with the master not home and the cook, who was roasting chestnuts on the fire, out of the room, the monkey tried to get the enticing food. But the fire was too hot and, when he saw the sleeping cat, he came up with a plan. He grabbed the cat and, despite her objections, held her paw and used that to scoop the chestnuts out of the fire, one by one. The cat was his "deputy" and he was able to get the desired treat (though, according to the story, the cook caught them before the monkey could eat his reward) (Funk, p. 162).

Why do some people call a salesman a "drummer"? It does not appear that this traveling merchant has anything to do with musical instruments, but let's check the origin of the term before we jump to conclusions. At one time, in order to get attention and, hopefully, make a sale, this businessman would enter a town and ring a bell or beat a drum to announce his presence. Once the cacophony attracted enough of a crowd, the salesman would commence to sell his wares. This behavior of "drumming up business" gave him the label "drummer" (Castle, p. 82).

Could one be "hijacked" without an airplane being involved? Yes: It comes from the phrase, "Up high, Jack," what robbers would demand of their victims (to put their hands up). However, the apparent origin of this is the days of prohibition when bootleggers would be robbed of their load of whiskey (Hendrickson, p. 328), without any airplane in sight.

The phrase "light out" (meaning "to leave rapidly") does not have any relation to turning (or blowing) out a light (though it is a good idea to extinguish lights before leaving). This is a slang term that originated in 1866 in Mark Twain's Letters from Hawaii. Prior to that, the term "light" was known to mean "arrive" (e.g., "he alights from the stage," meaning to disembark). So here is an example of a word having opposite meanings: to arrive and to leave (Barnhart, p. 595). And when a person leaves quickly, it might be said that he/she left "posthaste" (one word). This term is from Middle French and Latin: the "poste" was the station for horses used to carry the mail (hence the term, "post" for "mail"), and "haste" means speed (pp. 822-823). Letters that were marked "haste, post, haste" were expected to be delivered with the most speed possible. This dates back to the 1600s and has come, today, to mean "to do it rapidly" (Garrison, p. 199).

Why would the phrase "toe the mark" have anything to do with preparation and taking responsibility? Good question. Often it is miswritten as "tow the mark," but it has nothing to do with something being towed, such as a trailer; it refers to one's toe and comes from the field of prize-fighting. In the earliest days of the sport, there were no regulations to keep things civil and often a fighter was pushed into the ring without even being able to stand under his own power. For this reason, rules were established that if a fighter was not able to stand up without help, putting his foot on the starting mark before commencing to fight, he would not be permitted to proceed. Today we use the term to mean "being at the starting line and ready to go" (Holt, p. 244).

Being ready to move ahead to the next lead in our genealogy research is always a good idea, and sometimes it is necessary to recognize when the direction we are taking is wrong and we need to "cut stick and run," meaning to depart rapidly. This seems to be the combination of two different phrases: "cut stick" and "cut and run." It is not apparent that the "stick" here has any connection with a piece of wood, but its actual meaning seems to have been obscured over time. The phrase "cut a stick" means "to depart rapidly" and has been traced back to 1832 in the book Westward, Ho, and, though it has been repeated, and even paired with "cut" (1834, Life of Andrew Jackson, "cut stick and run") (Cassidy & Hall, p. 898), the actual connection to "cutting a stick" and then running is something I have been unable to trace. I have found "cut and run," with the same interpretation, to have been traced to sailing and the act of cutting the anchor line in order to depart rapidly (Holt, p. 71), but no sticks seem to be involved in this action.

For most of us genealogists, we have definitely "taken a cotton" to the activity. This use of the reference to textile has nothing to do with the cotton gloves we use when handling old documents, however. Have you ever noticed how cotton socks will cling to everything in the dryer (unless you use a dryer sheet)? Cotton, including the raw material from the plant, tends to stick to things (to the point that there is a slang expression "to cotton," meaning to engage in sexual intercourse) (Holt, p. 64). So when we "cotton" to our genealogy pursuits, it simply means that we enjoy the activity and plan to stick to it.

How about the term "soft soap" and its modern day meaning "to flatter"? The term "softsoap" predates the concoction we find in the household products aisle of the super market; it refers to the not quite liquid, but not quite solid, form of perfume or unguent, used both to clean oneself and to cover up odors. It was a slippery product and so lent its name to the action of slipping something over on someone by the use of flattery or smooth words (Shipley, p. 328).

Genealogists do all sorts of things to get the information they need to piece together the stories of their ancestors. It is unfortunate when the family members who have the information don't understand why genealogists need that truck, sometimes hijacking the data and keeping the family historian from having access to it or acting as drummers and offering it, but at a price. At times like these, the genealogists in the clan may have to be in cahoots, soft-soaping the reluctant family members, hoping that they will eventually cotton to the researchers. The historians should not manipulate people to pull the chestnuts out of the fire; but if they do, once they get the desired documents, photos, letters, family Bible, etc., they cut stick and run, lighting out, posthaste, with the coveted material and information. After they use the data in the compilation of the final product (book or website), hopefully, they will toe the mark and give proper credit for their sources.


Barnhart, Robert K. (Ed.). Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003.

Cassidy, Frederic Gomes, & Hall, Joan Houston. Dictionary of American Regional English [on-line]. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1985. Accessed on 30 January 2009, from,%22+origin|,%22+origin]].

Castle. Why do we Say it? The Stories behind the Words, Expressions and Cliches we Use. Seacaucus, NJ: Book Sales, Inc., 1985.

Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row, 1955.

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Holt, Alfred H. Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions. New York: Dover, 1961.

Shipley, Joseph T. Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Dorset Press, 1945.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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