Tag Archives: Etymology

Hobson’s Choice

take it or leave itWhat was said? “What is it when there’s no right answer to the question? A Hobson’s Choice?”

Did someone really say that? Yes, at work the other day, when presented with two options, neither being good ones, a coworker asked that question aloud…

What does it mean? It actually means a question where really only one option is offered, so you have to “take it or leave it” so to speak. It gives a false illusion of a “choice.”

Origin: The story goes that a Thomas Hobson (1544–1631) ran a carrier and horse rental business in Cambridge, England, where he rented out horses but refused to hire them out other than in the order he chose. The choice he gave his customers was ‘this or none’; quite literally, meaning not their choice but Hobson’s choice.

A well known “Hobson’s choice” was Henry Ford’s offer of the Model-T, “you can pick any color, as long it’s black!”  The expression is best known in the UK, but became used worldwide following the successful eponymous 1954 film starring Charles Laughton.

NOTE: I believe the use of “Hobson’s Choice” when I first heard it was not accurate, it was more of a “Morton’s Fork” which is being presented with two equivalent choices in which contradictory arguments lead to the same conclusion.



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Goose Egg & Lay an Egg

What was said? “When you look at the program results, all you see is “goose egg, goose egg, goose egg!”

Did someone really say that? Yes, last week when discussing how many program incentives a customer is claiming.

What does it mean? It means a big ZERO! Zilch, zip, nada.

Origin: Throughout my search, it seems that the majority of “goose egg” references is in the world of sports. Referencing a scoreboard and seeing the number zero that has a similar “look” as a round, elongated egg of a goose. Sample scoreboard references: “The home team got a big goose egg on the scoreboard,” or “At the end of the game there was nothing but goose eggs next to our name,” and even used as a verb sometimes “I played a tennis match and was goosegged, I lost 6-0, 6-0, 6-0.” Some believe that the term is an Americanization of the British term “duck’s egg” and that even that originated through sports – in 1870, in a game of cricket, a “duck’s egg” denoted a score of zero; and around the same time in baseball, the “goose egg” reference came alive. In tennis, a score of zero is known as “Love” in the USA, which “sounds” like the original French term for the score “l’ouef” which means… you guessed it – an egg!

To lay an egg is another expression that also means to flop, fail and to not score and apparently has no connection to a hen/goose/duck actually laying an egg. So in summary, not scoring is to “lay an egg” with a resulting “goose egg” on the scoreboard simply because the Arabic numeral “0” zero resembles an egg. Super scientific!




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It’s a Real Doozy

What was said? “It’s a real doozy!!”

Did someone really say that? Yes, at my nephew’s birthday party, a friend said that when discussing citric powder used in middle eastern cuisine.

What does it mean? To call something/someone a “doozy”, is to suggest it is extraordinary, one of a kind, remarkable or even bizarre. It is used both positively (as in the example above), and also at times to describe something that is troublesome or even difficult.

Origin: Sometimes spelled Doozy, Doozie, Doosie, Doosey, Duesey… there are a few of beliefs on where the expression originated.

1. A car!!  Beginning in 1921, during the Great Depression, two German-born brothers, the Duesenbergs, hand-crafted a luxury, american-made automobile line named after them. The vehicle was FAST (later model years winning Indy 500’s and the French Grand Prix) and EXPENSIVE (owned by the rich and famous). It came to be known as a “Duesey” and is one belief as to where the expression originated. NOTE: You may recognize it from the Great Gatsby movie with Leonardo DiCaprio (pictured below is a 1929 Duesenberg Model J, worth over $3 Million)

2. A Flower! Back in the 18th century, calling something a “daisy” was to call it great. The phrase made it’s way from England to North America, and appeared in print in 1836, in Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s The Clockmaker: “I raised a four year old colt once, half blood, a perfect picture of a horse, and a genuine clipper, could gallop like the wind; a real daisy, a perfect doll, had an eye like a weasel, and nostrils like Commodore Rodgers’s speakin’ trumpet”.

3. An Actress! Eleonora Duse, a famous Italian-born actress from the 19th century who spent time in the US and was greatly admired by President Cleveland and his wife, was commonly referred to as “Duse.” It is believed that this nickname, in combination with the “Daisy” origin, created the saying “Doozy.”



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Shrinking Violet

What was said? “I’m no shrinking violet. I’ll tell him exactly how I see it!”

Did someone really say that? Yes, when in northern Michigan, a friend said that about another friend and his idiosyncrasies.

What does it mean? Shrinking violet refers to a shy or modest individual, so in the case above, my friend was saying that she was in fact the opposite – more outspoken and outgoing.


Most sources say that the phrase originated in the UK and refers to the violet flower, from the Viola family of flowers, which also includes pansies. The violet flower in the UK was known as a reclusive and understated flower, that is modest in nature because it grows close to the ground, is quite dainty and its flowers are sometimes hidden in its leaves and by nearby shrubs. A poetry magazine, The Indicator, contains what many believe was the first written instance of the saying from Leigh Hunt, published in 1820:

There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow; and a faint-coloured poppy; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet.

In the USA, the figurative use of the term describing individuals as shy/modest is most common. Also, there are two more commercial uses for the term:

  1. Weight loss wrap titled “shrinking violet” helping women “shrink a size”
  2. Book series for young girls where a “shrinking violet” is the main character and has many adventures making her go from normal to mini-me from time to time


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What’s the Beef?

What was said? “What’s the Beef?”

Did someone really say that? Yes, Jimmy Fallon has a segment on the Tonight Show called “What’s the Beef?” where he creates fictional fights between famous actors. I was watching with my parents and they were naturally questioning… “why beef?”

What does it mean? It means to have a problem or issue with someone or something, so in the context above, “what’s the issue/argument all about?”


There are many ideas as to where this phrase started… all the way from it originating from rap songs signifying that when someone has “beef” with you, it ends up with a street fight where your face could get so banged up that it resembles ground beef, all the way to having to do with cow ownership and “beefy” situations:

  • The phrase “I have a beef with you” originated in the old west among sheep farmers who were competing for grazing land with cattle farmers. The sheep farmers used the term with each other to refer to a conflict, which was what they had with the cattle farmers, or “beef” farmers (answers.com)
  • Having to do with the ownership of cows and “cow feuds” which resulted as owners argued over the best interests of the cow and typically the cow got slaughtered and led to owners having “beef” with one another (10poundhammer blog)
  • First appearing in the U.S. during the late 1800s, “beef” describes a situation or complaint that might well escalate into a “beefy” muscular conflict (Word Detective)

So it seems, that there is not one origin for the phrase, but either way, Jimmy’s segment will make a lot more sense now!

Jimmy Fallon's "What the Beef?" Segment - Click to Play!

Jimmy Fallon’s “What the Beef?” Segment – Click to Play!

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Dog’s Breakfast

Volume 3. Issue 9.

What was said? “The meeting was a complete dog’s breakfast…”

Did someone really say that? Yes, in response to the question “how did the meeting go?” and apparently it was a disaster

What does it mean? It really just translates to a complete mess, mish-mash, hodgepodge or something that has gone very badly where the outcome wasn’t what was intended to be

Origin: Since the 1930’s, the saying “dog’s breakfast” has been used in the U.K. and Commonwealth countries as slang for “a complete mess.”  First recorded instance is from Eric Partridge, in the 1937 edition of his A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the expression is listed as “a mess.” Although the origin isn’t exactly known, it alludes to the fact that if what you don’t succeed at what you are cooking, then the results are only fit for a dog. It’s usage can be widespread – from what a messy room looks like, to how a meeting went (like the example above).  It is suggested that this dates from a time before canned dog food when a pup’s breakfast would have consisted of dinner leftovers from the night before; hence, “a mess.” Not to be confused with a  parallel expression “a dog’s dinner” which means quite the opposite and usually comes in the form of “all dressed up like a dog’s dinner” and sarcastically means over-dressed / showy.

Dog Breakfast Pic



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Belt and Suspenders

Volume 3. Issue 8.

What was said? That was so “belt and suspenders” of us anyway…

Did someone really say that? Yes, my friend Rita and I were walking to a restaurant in Nashville with both our Google maps app open on our iPhone and a paper printout of the directions. When we realized we lost the printout along our walk, Rita proclaimed the phrase above.

What does it mean? Someone who wears a belt and suspenders is very cautious and takes no risks. It refers to redundant systems, a form of “double insurance,” where either the belt or the suspenders serve as a backup in the event of the other failing (literally – no one needs to wear both a belt and suspenders to hold up their pants!)

Origin: First found in print in 1935 in the Galveston Daily News, where the ‘News Behind the News’ column states: “A pessimist wears both belt and suspenders.” Today, the phrase “belt and suspenders,” is used mainly in business and law when two strategies are used to minimize the risk that would be exist should only one strategy be in place.



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