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Hot off the press


by Jonathan van Bilsen


It is, once again, time to look at the etymology of phrases. Ever wonder where some of our frequently used sayings come from?

What in the world is an 'iron-clad' contract? This came about from the ironclad ships of the Civil War. It meant something so strong it could not be broken.

The Mississippi River was the main way of travelling from north to south. Riverboats carried passengers and freight but they were expensive so most people used rafts. Everything had the right of way over rafts, which were considered cheap. The steering oar on rafts were called a ‘riff’, and this transposed into riff-raff, meaning low class.

What in the world is a cob web? The Old English word for ‘spider’ was 'cob'.

Travelling by steamboat was considered the height of comfort. Passenger cabins on the boats were not numbered, instead they were named after states. To this day cabins on ships are called staterooms.

Early beds were made with a wooden frame. Ropes were tied across the frame in a crisscross pattern. A straw mattress was then put on top of the ropes. Over time the ropes stretched, causing the bed to sag. The owner would then tighten the ropes to get a better night’s sleep. Hence the saying, ‘sleep tight’.

Showboats were floating theatres built on a barge which was pushed by a steamboat. They played small towns along the Mississippi River. Unlike the boat shown in the movie ‘Showboat’, these did not have an engine. They were gaudy and attention grabbing which is why we say someone, who is being the life of the party, is “showboating”.

In the days before CPR, a drowning victim would be placed face down over a barrel and the barrel would be rolled back and forth in an effort to empty their lungs of water. It was rarely effective. Consequently, if you are ‘over a barrel’, you are in deep trouble.

Heavy freight was moved along the Mississippi in large barges, pushed by steamboats. These were hard to control and would sometimes swing into piers or other boats. People would say they ‘barged in’.

Steamboats carried both people and animals. Since pigs smelled so bad they would be washed before being put on board. The mud and other filth which was washed off was considered useless ‘hog wash’.

When the first oil wells were drilled, they had made no provision for storing the liquid, so they used water barrels. That is why, to this day, we speak of barrels of oil rather than gallons. As the newspaper goes through the rotary printing press friction causes it to heat up. Therefore, if you grab the paper, right off the press, it is hot, hence, the expression ‘hot off the press’ means to get immediate information.

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website and YouTube.

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