Dammit Jim, I’m a musician, not a linguist!

I’ve recently taken to using archaic, or otherwise outdated words and phrases in casual conversation.  It’s not because I think it makes me look smart (I wear a bow-tie with its own little pocket protector for that), but because I think it’s hilarious when I talk to my students with a little “You lost your pick?  Odds-blood!” and “You broke a string?  Awwww, applesauce! Must’a bought that little jitney with some wooden nickles, I’m supposin’!” action.  One day I caught myself using more of these words and phrases than I could count, and I seriously have no idea why they decided to sneak into my vernacular. I mean, I haven’t been watching any 1570′s television lately, and I can’t for the life of me get the frozen head of Al Jolson to start talking (though I’m told that the secret is ‘bees’).  Luckily, teh internetz has all the tools I need, as well as some leftover English books from university (I’ll get around to eating them eventually).

Most often uttered by the thunder-god Thor, “Zounds” is a mild oath ( or a ‘minced oath‘) dating back to at least 1592 that literally means “God’s Wounds”.  God would then bleed out his God’s Blood, or ‘Odds-Blood’.  Readers of The Mighty Thor may recognize this hackneyed writing.

 Zounds!  The Asgardian must surely shave his chest while yonder heavy-brow’d man looketh upon his bounty!

Odds Bodkins
Another minced oath, and similar to the one above, this one has a few layers.  ‘Odds’ is an altered form of ‘God’s', same as above. A bodkin is a slender spike used for piercing hard surfaces (you may have heard of a bodkin arrow), but in this context, it borrows from the earlier ‘bodikin’, meaning ‘body’, so the slang is a minced oath to mean “God’s Body”.  When it was first used in Elizabethan-England, this kind of phraseology was far too presumptive in such a puritanical society, but William Shakespeare did it often, with an incredible sense of condescension and disdain for the prevailing culture that only a hipster would dare try….but, you know…he did it with talent, and without the need for vintage clothing shops and ironic soft drinks:

POLONIUS: My lord, I will use them according to their desert.
HAMLET: God’s bodkin, man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
(Hamlet, Act II scene 2)

 ”I will use them according to their desert?“  What the hell?  No wonder I was so bad at this stuff in high school.  What this passage means is, in a rough nutshell(say, a walnut’s), is that Polonius will utilize the talents of the players according to their abilities (deserved–> deserts), and Hamlet says that Polonius is being a pompous little jerk, and that he should take great pains to treat them better then they deserve….for if the players turn out to suck so hard, then Polonious will look all the better.  Very Machiavellian now that I think about it.

I had desperately hoped that this one dealt with a man punching a cod, or indeed any other fish in the face.  

Pictured: The reason the internet is cooler than you’ll ever be.
As it turns out, this word has only been recorded for the first time in 1960, but it’s certainly way-the be-jezzus older than that.  Reports are pretty varied, and it seems like no one knows for certain what its origins are, or even what the hell it even means!  For now, I’ll happily assume it means Mr T fighting a shark.  But at what point does it cease to be Codswallop and begin to be T’swallop?
When a word like this has so many explanations of its origins, it gets relegated to the category of “folk etymology”…in other words, “armchair analysis”  (hmmmm…..)

This one has been ultimately lost to the depths of time and piracy.  It’s probably an altered portmanteau of Black-Guard, a menial laborer in a large household, or the grunt-servants of an army.  It’s since been co-opted to mean a person of unsavory nature/character.

Pictured: Ummm…..sort of what I’m talking about.  I mean, they have the same words….

Freeze the balls of a brass Monkey
 This one is one of my favourites.  I used to work at a historic site of a 19th century Naval base, and I got to learn all about the weird and dated superstitions, customs and language of the British Sailors.  For instance, sailors back then hardly ever ate fish, because they thought that if you took from the sea, the sea would take from you.  Apparently, the sea truly be a harrrrsh mistress.
 A modern depiction of a heroic sailor of the 1800′s Great Lakes.  Dashing, unafraid, and bold, he no doubt totally did not stage this photo…
he made minimum wage….OF THE SEA!
The equation works something like this: 1) Put some cannonballs onto a brass plate, which is called a “Monkey” 2) lower the temperature…this can most efficiently be done by sailing into Arctic waters 3) Some science happens, (the brass shrinks, and becomes too small to hold the cannonballs) 4) The balls then fall off the plate: off the brass monkey.
Pictured: ….*sigh*
The Cut of your Jib
This is another slang I learned from the historic site, but I could have easily learned this from being a crewman aboard any sailing vessel.  A Jib is the triangular-shaped sail (or more accurately, ‘staysail’) that flies off the bow of a sailing vessel (ore more accurately again, flies off the “bowsprit”). During the age of the sailing ship, different empires would have their jibs shaped (or cut) a certain way.  This would ensure not only that your allies know that it’s you off in the distance, but that you’ll know when your enemies are coming over to shiver your timbers and flibber your gibbets.  
 I like the cut of their jibs….There’s four of them, and they’re green!  I LOVE green!
23 Skidoo 
This one is another whose origin is a little spotty.  Skidoo is (or rather, was) a slang meaning to flee quickly (or Skedaddle, which has its roots in the Civil War, and no one is precisely sure where that one came from either), but the 23 part is even more confusing.
One theory suggests that the term is a reference to the Flatiron Building, a notable New York landmark located on 23rd street. As visitors to the site today have noted, the peculiar shape of the building creates unusual air currents in the area, which sometimes have amusing effects on those walking by. In the early 1900s, women wore long skirts and rarely showed their ankles, and allegedly men would gather around the Flatiron to watch their skirts flip up in the breeze. Police were said to be giving men the ’23 skidoo’ when they dispersed the groups.  (source)
As Canadians, we all probably think that the term comes from the brand-name of snowmobiles…My high school had a special parking spot for snowmobiles, and I have just decided that it refers to the fact that there were (I’ve decided…now) 23 spots for skidoos.  Folk etymology: I’m doin it often.
Like this, but with 22 more, and with none of the electric guitars that I’m hearing in my head when I see this picture.

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  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.