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WHAT ARE WE REALLY SAYING?

Everyday Idioms and Their Lesser-Known Meanings

What is an Idiom?Hit the hay.  No one hears this expression and expects to see someone literally punching straw! 

People say idiomatic expressions all the time.  Idioms by definition have meanings based on a situational, cultural understanding that turns into a standard and relatively understood meaning.  But what about the original situations that created these sayings?  While many are simply charmingly benign, based on previous normal situations (mattresses were often stuffed with straw through the 19th century), others have far more questionable origins.

Does it matter where a saying comes from? What do we do when we hear it used in every day situations?  What can we say instead?  

Sometimes, what we say means a lot more than we think it does.  Join us as we take a closer look at everyday terms and phrases and dive into their meanings and origins.  You might be surprised.

Join us on Sunday, January 3, at 1 p.m. for a discussion on idioms, their lesser-known meanings, and why we shouldn't be using them.  Click here to register.

To learn about Barnert's Anti-Racism campaign, visit barnerttemple.org/antiracismcampaign


The Grandfather Clause

THE GRANDFATHER CLAUSE

Did you know that the Grandfather Clause was a post-Civil War legal maneuver to restrict newly-freed slaves from voting and impacting the electorate?

Most people think being "grandfathered" means you are simply following a previous version of a rule or are exempt from a new, more restrictive rule.

Actually... the origin of "the grandfather clause" was a reaction to the 15th Amendment.

Southern states wanted to find ways to limit formerly enslaved Black citizens from voting while not disenfranchising white voters.

Enter "the grandfather clause, which exempted men from new voting restrictions if their grandfathers had  been legally able to vote.  This ensured that most poor, illiterate white men would be able to vote while most former slaves would not.

Sometimes, what we say means a lot more than we think it does.  Check your Barnert emails, Barnert's social media accounts, and Barnert's website for additional idioms each week and the meanings behind these everyday expressions.


Eenie Meenie Miney Mo

EENIE, MEENIE, MINEY, MO

Most of us know this children’s song.  Even toddlers learn this rhyme early on.  When needing to pick who goes first, what book to read, which snack to eat, etc, a quick round of “eenie, meenie, miney, mo” often did the job.

Actually, what we have long seen as a ‘cute ‘ way to make random or unimportant decisions has deep roots in American slavery.  While contemporary iterations of the song include the words "catch a tiger” to help pick "it," the original version of the rhyme used the word “N*****” to identify who was being caught, either in reference to catching runaway slaves (“if he hollers, let him go”) or to selecting new ones to purchase (“my mother says to pick the very best one and you are I T it”).

What can we say instead?  With children, try making up a different rhyme, utilizing numbers, letters, or anything that interests them!

Sometimes, what we say means a lot more than we think it does.  Check your Barnert emails, Barnert's social media accounts, and Barnert's website for additional idioms each week and the meanings behind these everyday expressions.


Cakewalk Piece of Cake Idiom

CAKEWALK/PIECE OF CAKE

When something is easy, we call it a “cakewalk” or a “piece of cake”. Sounds yummy!  But what makes it easy?  And walking on cake sounds messy at best.

A cakewalk was originally a dance contest activity on southern plantations.  On Sundays, slaves would dress in whatever served as their “best” and hold dance “contests” that were in actuality meant to mock the manners, behaviors, and dancing styles of the white southern elites. The slaves would promenade around and perform, often watched and judged by the very plantation owners they were covertly mocking.  “The Cakewalk” was actually an intricately choreographed dance, and the more proficient a dancer, the easier and smoother it appeared. The slave declared the winner by the white judges would be rewarded with cake.

Even after the Civil War and the end of slavery, Cakewalk events remained a part of African American culture, and were simultaneously incorporated into minstrel shows, often involving performers in blackface. What can we say instead? Consider “easy.”

Sometimes, what we say means a lot more than we think it does.  Check your Barnert emails, Barnert's social media accounts, and Barnert's website for additional idioms each week and the meanings behind these everyday expressions.


Master Bedroom Idiom

MASTER BEDROOM

Real estate language often refers to the largest bedroom in a home (and sometimes the attached bath) as “the master.” Large master suites, en-suites, master closets, etc. have all become very casual terms in remodels, home shows, real estate, and more.

While the history of the term appears to place its origin in the 1920s, the concept of a “master” in the American story is permanently linked to the centuries of slavery that continue to shape the cultural and racial landscape in the U.S. The connotation of a master, as a master of slaves, has made the word inherently a trigger word for many.

What can we say instead? Consider “primary bedroom.”

Sometimes, what we say means a lot more than we think it does.  Check your Barnert emails, Barnert's social media accounts, and Barnert's website for additional idioms each week and the meanings behind these everyday expressions.


Crack the Whip Idiom

CRACK THE WHIP/WHIP CRACKER

Today, the phrase “crack the whip” is used to imply a use of authority (though not necessarily force) to urge subordinates to work harder or better.  Although the phrase may have originated in the 1600s in reference to horses pulling carriages, its continued use brought it to overseers on American plantations with chattel slavery.  In that vein, the ‘whip crackers’ were the poorer white men who worked in the fields as overseers.  “Whip cracker” may have also been the origin of "cracker," a derogatory term for white people, usually of lower socioeconomic status.

Sometimes, what we say means a lot more than we think it does.  Check your Barnert emails, Barnert's social media accounts, and Barnert's website for additional idioms each week and the meanings behind these everyday expressions.


Freeholder Idiom

FREEHOLDER

In New Jersey, the Board of Chosen Freeholders essentially made up the legislative branch of government on the county level.  Freeholders are elected officials, and the term originates from the New Jersey state constitution of 1776, predating even the United States officially becoming a country.

The term is unique to the Garden State, and not especially enlightening as to what the role does, but for decades conversations about changing the title made little headway due to the tradition associated with the title.  Historically, those eligible to be elected to the position were required to be landowners who owned land outright; “free” holders (free of any time or use restricted leases), as opposed to “land" holders who often had such restricted leases.  When the term Freeholder originated and for many years after, the ability to own land was restricted to white men.

In light of this history, in the summer of 2020 Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey reviewed the term with the state’s legislative houses. The Governor referred to the reevaluation as a part of “a national reckoning to reexamine vestiges of structural racism” and signed a bill changing the title of Freeholder to County Commissioner. The bill was signed on August 21, 2020, and went into effect on January 1, 2021.

Sometimes, what we say means a lot more than we think it does.  Check your Barnert emails, Barnert's social media accounts, and Barnert's website for additional idioms each week and the meanings behind these everyday expressions.


Peanut Gallery Idiom

PEANUT GALLERY

The origin of this phrase derives from late 1800's Vaudeville, a popular style of entertainment that included jugglers, comedians, singers and more. The "peanut gallery" was the cheapest section of seats, usually occupied by people with limited means. Peanuts were sold here for snacks, and viewers would sometimes throw them at performers they did not like.

In the segregated South, seats in the back or upper balcony levels were mostly reserved for Black people. The term “peanut gallery” was used as a synonym for n----- gallery, referring to the upper balcony in racially segregated venues, such as theaters, to which Black patrons were restricted. (Stuart Berg Flexner)

Sometimes, what we say means a lot more than we think it does.  Check your Barnert emails, Barnert's social media accounts, and Barnert's website for additional idioms each week and the meanings behind these everyday expressions.


Mumbo Jumbo Idiom

MUMBO JUMBO

Before it was synonymous with "jargon" or "other confusing language," the phrase mumbo jumbo originated with religious ceremonies in West Africa. In the Mandinka language, the word Maamajomboo described a masked dancer who participated in ceremonies. Former Royal African Company clerk Francis Moore transcribed the name as mumbo jumbo in his 1738 book Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. In the early 1800s, English speakers started to divorce the phrase from its African origins and apply it to anything that confused them.

Sometimes, what we say means a lot more than we think it does.  Check your Barnert emails, Barnert's social media accounts, and Barnert's website for additional idioms each week and the meanings behind these everyday expressions.


JIMMIES

“Jimmies” seems to be a somewhat regional term for chocolate sprinkles.  There are a few stories that claim to explain the origin of the term.  One claims the name pays homage to the creator of the machine that made them (potentially true).  Another honors a charity that was supported by the proceeds (less likely but nice story).  Yet another claims the name is a direct reference to Jim Crow laws since the name was only used to refer to the chocolate sprinkles and not the rainbow (not likely).

The most likely explanation is that Just Born, the company that manufactured jimmies (also the maker of Peeps) came up with the name to distinguish it from existing product already in the marketplace, similar to Kleenex or Band-Aid.  While most agree that the name didn't actually come from a reference to racist Jim Crow laws, an unfortunate association with Jim Crow has grown over the years, with a large contingency of people believing the term has racist origins.

Sometimes, what we say means a lot more than we think it does.  Check your Barnert emails, Barnert's social media accounts, and Barnert's website for additional idioms each week and the meanings behind these everyday expressions.


Mon, June 21 2021 11 Tammuz 5781