Human Interest


Every now and then, we interject a colloquialism into general conversation. That’s a fancy way of saying while we’re chatting, we say something that doesn’t make sense. It’s part of our language, but only understandable by the speaker. It’s a figure of speech whose meaning is determined by the situation in which it’s used. Colloquialisms are also called idioms.

Such was the case recently when I was asked where I was going. I replied without hesitation, “I’m going to see a man about a horse!” That makes absolutely no sense in reality because I’m not going anywhere there are horses, nor do I have any interest in them. What that phrase means to most people is I’m politely, and without drawing attention, excusing myself to use the restroom. It’s a discreet way of saying I’m leaving this current encounter to take care of some personal business, whatever it may be. Phrases of this sort are used all the time, and although they don’t seem to make sense, we understand what’s being said.

According to the “Urban Dictionary,” the earliest confirmed publication of this phrase was in 1866 when the play, The Flying Scud, used it when a character was trying to escape a difficult situation. During prohibition, the phrase was commonly used when one was secretly purchasing, or drinking, an alcoholic beverage. “Any general business that needs attending to that you may not want to discuss with the present party” will occasion us to use the expression as a means of deflecting attention from the subject. Primarily, males use the “man-horse” phrase when they have to go to the bathroom and just don’t want to announce it. Men being men, they try to disguise anything related to bodily functions by making it a joke. 

The phrase “don’t take any wooden nickels” originated in the 19th century when “country people” ventured into the big city and were naive enough to be cheated or duped in some way. “Wooden nickels” became a symbol for those who were gullible and easily swindled and were being warned to be careful about shady people. 

One of my favorite colloquialisms is “don’t let the door hit you…..on the way out.” On occasion, a part of the human anatomy is included in that phrase for greater effect. This is a “metaphor for….I think you should leave. Do not pause or delay while you are leaving.” Get out of here, now! In days past, doors were on spring hinges and often flew into the backside of the person leaving. This expression says “leave now, quickly so the door doesn’t hit you.” It’s rude to use this phrase, but it’s meaning cannot be misunderstood.

In the 5th century, the Romans had an expression that referred to looking in a horse’s mouth to determine its age and health status. “If someone gives you a horse, and you look in its mouth, it’s considered rude; like looking at its price tag.” You’re questioning the quality of the gift. In today’s vernacular, it means when someone gives you a gift, don’t question the reason or means by which the gift was obtained; don’t evaluate a gift, be appreciative and grateful. “Joe got a bike for Christmas, but it wasn’t the one he wanted. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!” Be glad you received what you got!

“Til the cows come home” is used when folks don’t know when something is going to end. It refers to an indefinite length of time and often means forever. In the Scottish Highlands during the 16th century, “cows were allowed to graze for months at a time before they meandered home in the Fall.” No one could predict when they would return home so the end of an activity was denoted by when the cows come home. The irony is that it’s uncertainty is puzzling.

Mumbo jumbo is the term used when someone is saying something that makes no sense to the listener or is considered to be a lie or a fictitious statement. It’s origin stems from West Africa where Mumbo Jumbo was an 18th century West African god. His pronouncements were very difficult to decipher. The expression was at one time considered racist, but today is “perfectly politically correct.” People use it frequently in a derogatory manner to characterize things people say. “What he said was all mumbo jumbo!”

These are just a few of the hundreds of quips, or idioms, we use in conversation every day. They are incorporated naturally and are used often. Learning the origin of these phrases gives a little clarity to understanding their meaning and when they are appropriate to use. Seeing a man about a horse is an important event because it can mean I’m going to do something I’d rather keep to myself. It’s none of your business! I think most people know what is implied by an idiom, but the uncertainty gives our imagination a workout. 


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