“I have a bone to pick with you.” Really? Does anyone fail to understand the expression, meaning having a score to settle or an argument to advance?
Methinks many of us — including and especially myself — must have come across this and other expressions and never really bothered to verify them, to discover what they really mean. Sometimes we use incorrect expressions without knowing so; other times we use them correctly but don’t know why.
Here are some common terms, which, invariably get used wrong:
At the top of the list has to be “I could care less.” People use it more often than the original term, “I couldn’t care less.” Note that the first instance demonstrates that the speaker is capable of caring a great deal and is therefore far from indifferent.
Another is “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” For many years I would argue, “Yes you can!”
But really, you can’t. Imagine a cake so carefully crafted that it’s a thing of beauty, a joy forever. Until it gets eaten.
I used to think the expression was wrong in that we first have the cake, and then we eat it. But you can’t eat it and keep it too.
And what do people mean when they say something is “selling like hotcakes”? Granted, there might have been a time, perhaps when masses of people moved west for the Gold Rush, and subsisted on hotcakes, that sales were brisk. But how did a young Albuquerque TV reporter survive her internship when she did a stand-upper in front of a newly opened Krispy Kreme store and proclaimed that the “donuts are selling like hotcakes”? Have hotcakes ever sold like donuts?
I’ve always believed that when people say they “have an axe to grind,” they’re hoping to hone it finely and possibly use it against someone. Doesn’t everyone agree with that interpretation? My friend, Lupita Gonzales, a fellow Optic columnist, set me straight on that one. “No,” she said, “to have an axe to grind means you want a favor.”
“Phrase Finder,” an online source, traces the axepression all the way back to Ben Franklin. Apparently, one takes a dull axe along to a store, for example, makes some purchases, and hopes the shop-keeper will throw in an axe-sharpening for free. Now that rendition is far from the bleeding and mayhem implicit in the interpretation akin to having a bone to pick.
And what about picking bones? That expression, which goes back to the 1500s, refers to a dog’s preoccupation with chewing a choice bone clean while frightening off other dogs. Therefore, it must mean engaging in thorough discussion to solve a problem, especially when the lead picker assumes he’s been wronged.
Yet another difficult-to-comprehend term is “at the drop of a hat.” Well, how many people intend meaningful gestures by dropping their chapeau, or, in the case of many Las Vegans, their sideways baseball cap?
Rosemarie Ostler, in her book, “Let’s Talk Turkey,” explains that in the 1800s, about the only formality preceding a fistfight was for someone to drop a hat. Let the fisticuffs begin.
Yet, Ostler cites a case from literature in which a man exclaims to his paramour, “You said you’d marry me at the drop of a hat.” Ah, so the expression also has romantic connotations. Well, some marriages might involve just as many bouts of fisticuffs as a street brawl, so a marital relationship becomes martial.
Another expression, well taken, is “cut to the chase.” Clearly, most people would be expected to understand the reference, from the movies, to skipping the boring parts and going directly to the chase scene, the exciting part.
The term “cop a plea,” which has increased in usage in the past 40 years, has an interesting history.
But first, when did “cop,” which to most of us refers to a policeman, become a verb? Most sources define copping a plea as admitting one’s guilt in the hope that doing so will prevent a heavy sentence.
“Cop” variously means for a policeman to nab someone, and for someone to steal something. To cop a nod means to get some sleep; to cop an attitude is to get belligerent; to cop onto an idea is to finally realize something; to cop a buzz is to get drunk; and to cop a feel is to fondle someone.
We have 600,000 words in the English language, but this tiny word — cop — performs myriad duties. It’s best I end it now, even if that’s a cop-out.
Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.