Crossing your fingers for good luck. Telling a child to “sleep tight.” Replying to a comment or question with “OK.” People seem to do all of these without giving much thought to them. You’ve bought a raffle ticket and, as the deciding moment comes, you cross your fingers without thinking and with full knowledge that it won’t make a bit of difference.

Have you ever wondered where these certain gestures and expressions you use come from? Well, everything has an origin, or a point of reference, gestures and expressions alike. In fact, for words there is even a name for it: etymology.

For normal usage of these expressions and gestures, you might wonder who really cares to know where it came from. But if you want to impress acquaintances, friends and possible life-mates, this esoteric knowledge might be your way in. It may inspire awe, comic relief and -- best case scenario -- pass you off as a highly intelligent being. How else would you know that, back in the day, soldiers on the battlefield never lit three cigarettes with one flame because the enemy would have an established visual aim?

Now, I can’t guarantee I’ve got all the facts. Truth is, there are often multiple explanations for origin stories, and some cannot be fully corroborated. So don’t hold me accountable when you pass one of these on and someone tells you you’re full of it. Without keeping you in suspense any longer, here are some I came across.

The first is a term that many Americans use everyday. It’s “OK.”

“OK” comes from the expression, “oll korrect.” Back in the 1830s and 1840s, an interesting fad -- where people began using abbreviations rather than entire terms -- started in Boston and spread further West. People used expressions like “NG” for “no go” or “SP” for “small potatoes.” Naturally, the fad couldn’t last forever and many of the abbreviations went into immediate retirement.

But “OK” persevered.

It actually gained significant momentum after being used in 1840 by supporters of soon-to-be-President Martin Van Buren, who was known as “Old Kinderhook” so named because he was a native of Kinderhook, NY. Van Buren’s Democratic followers adopted “OK” as a term of identification for their club and it was eventually integrated into the vernacular.

But when things aren’t going “OK” and you just need some plain luck, what do you do? You cross your fingers, of course. Or some may ask you to “keep your fingers crossed” for them before they scratch that lottery ticket. This gesture originates from the custom of making a wish upon the cross. It was believed that the cross was a symbol of unity and that benign spirits dwelt at its intersecting point -- to wish on a cross was a figurative way of securing the wish at the intersection until it came true. This custom dates back to pre-Christian times and, in many early European cultures, two people were required to use their index fingers to form the sign, one to make the wish and the other to support it. Over the years, the custom was modified so one person could make a wish on his/her own.

So if you cross your fingers for, say, your favorite sports team to win and they make a last minute goal, touchdown, basket or whatever, you might exclaim, “Boy, that was in the nick of time!” And sport is exactly where that expression came from. Many centuries ago, points in a game -similar to today’s soccer -- were notched into wooden sticks called tallies. When a last minute score brought victory, it was called the “nick in time.”

Phew! Game over. Your team won and now it is time for a good night’s sleep. Some well-wishers might warn, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” And woe to those who didn’t listen.

This expression derives from a familiar caution that had everything to do with how beds were constructed at the time. A mattress was placed on rope woven through a square frame, and if it wasn’t strung tightly enough, the bed would sag and possibly hit the floor. Which is where the bed bugs come into play: they are real and they do bite. So back when things were a lot less sanitary, if the bed or the sheets touched the floor you were in for some itchy sleep.

Let’s move from insects to animals, since the next two origins stories concern two well-loved four-legged creatures. The first one is the term “dead ringer,” which means an almost identical copy or likeness. There are a few theories on where this expression first got its meaning, but I will pass on the most interesting one. In horse racing a substitute horse is referred to as a ringer. It is said that some less-than-honest owners maintain two horses that look almost identical, hence, the use of the word “dead” meaning “exact,” like if you were to say, “the target was hit dead center.” They race the slower horse until the odds are to their liking, then replace it with the faster horse to win big bucks on the race.

The next term is “red herring,” which has less to do with fish and more to do with dogs. The expression is used in reference to something misleading or distracting. According to the magazine Red Herring, back in the 1800s British fugitives would run a red herring through their trail to distract police dogs. Later, in the 1920s, American investment bankers used the term to pass on a warning that preliminary prospectuses may be misleading. Other sources also say that red herring was used to train dogs and, therefore, when poachers wanted to mislead the dogs during a hunt, they would drag red herring across the trail. Whichever the case, it seems red herring is a smelly enough substance to throw even our canine friends from a criminal trail.

Well, that about wraps it up. The rule of thumb is to stop before your audience gets bored of you. But remember, it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings. Here’s hoping for a thumbs up.

OK, I’ll stop now.

Happy Readers - Happy Shoppers


© Melt Magazine 2002