March 17, 2011

It's Phrase Origins Thursday!

Word afficionados, rejoice! You held your breath, you waited and hoped and finally it's here -- Phrase Origins Thursday! But I digress. Here they are:

Coney Island; coney. The Coney in Coney Island should really be pronounced to rhyme with honey or money. The word derives from cony (or coney or cuny), meaning the adult long-eared rabbit (Lepus cunicula) after which the Brooklyn, New York community was named. However, cony, pronounced cunny, became a term for the female genitals in British slang, and proper Victorians stopped using the word, substituting rabbit, which previously had meant only the young of the coney species. The only trouble remaining was that cony (pronounced cunny) appeared throughout the King James Bible, which had to be read aloud during church services. Proper Victorians solved this problem by changing the pronunciation of cony (cunny) to coney (rhymes with boney), which it remains to this day in Coney Island as well as the Bible.

Cook your goose. The Mad King of Sweden, Eric XIV, was supposedly so enraged because residents of a medieval town he had attacked hung out a goose, a symbol of stupidity, to "slyghte his forces" that he told the residents "[I will] cook your goose" and proceeded to burn the town to the ground. This story is generally disregarded . . . Attempts have been made to relate the phrase to the old Greek fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs. The peasant couple to whom that goose belonged, you'll remember, killed it (and perhaps cooked it later) because they were eager to get at the golden eggs within its body, which turned out to be undeveloped in any case. The first recorded use of the phrase cook your goose is in a London street ballad condemning "Papal Aggression" when Pope Pius IX tried to strengthen the power of the Catholic Church in England with his appointment of Nicholas Wiseman as English Cardinal:

"If they come here we'll cook their goose,
The Pope and Cardinal Wiseman."

It's a naive domestic burgundy without any breeding but I think you'll be amused by its presumptions. This originated as the caption under a James Thurber drawing of a pretentious oenologist offering a glass to a friend. It is an expression that has been used jokingly by many a host pretending to be a "wine expert" while dispensing a $3.99 special.

The above is excerpted from an excellent volume called "The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson. I'll be branching out soon -- I just sent for a new copy of my long-lost "A Browser's Dictionary: a Compendium of Curious Expressions and Intriguing Facts", by John Ciardi. Stay tuned.

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