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The origin of the species

A few months ago I wrote an article about the origin of several phrases in the English language, and I was flattered by the positive response I received. After a little research and a few suggestions from my good friend Peter, I offer several more astonishing origins. The word posh, has come to mean people who are well off and perhaps even a bit arrogant. The word itself is an acronym for the cabin arrangements on board the P&O liners which sailed to the Far East. To avoid the afternoon sun in the Red Sea, the preferred cabins, for those who could afford them, were on the port side when going out and on the starboard side when returning, or coming home, hence the term Port Out Starboard Home (POSH). The word “frank” came into Middle English from the Old French word “franc. Back then the word meant ‘free’, and referred to being free from paying taxes. It soon acquired the meaning of a free man, and as such, someone who is free to speak one’s mind, as opposed to a servant or slave who had to bite their tongue. In the 19th century the term, ‘to be frank’ referred to expressing one’s honest opinion and is still very common in today’s speech. Back in the day, when streetcars were found in every major city, they were powered by electricity. Usually a long arm with a wheel at the end would ride along an electric wire overhead. The wheel was known as a rocker, and every so often it would pop out of place and the trolley would come to a halt. Passengers were not happy when this happened and the term ‘off his rocker’ was coined to describe the incident, but also to intimate the negligence of the driver. It became a derogatory term still in use today. Can’t keep a secret? You will be accused of ‘spilling the beans’, a term which originated in Greek times when electing council members. Each member would vote, with a white bean for yes or a brown bean for no, and these would secretly be put into a jar. No one would know which way the members voted. However, sometimes the jar would be knocked over showing the proportion of yes and no votes. This was known as ‘spilling the beans’. In 1837, the Marquis of Waterford, a known mischief maker, led a group of friends on a night of drinking, through the English town of Melton Mowbray. The bender culminated in vandalism, after Waterford and his fellow revellers knocked over flowerpots, pulled knockers off of doors and broke the windows of some of the town’s buildings. To top it all off, the mob literally painted a tollgate, the doors of several homes and a swan statue with red paint. The phrase “paint the town red” was coined, and owes its origin to one legendary night of drunkenness. If you know of any others please email me, at, and I will pen them here in a few months. The phrases are, after all, a great way to ‘break the ice’. 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 Rogers TV, the Standard Website or YouTube.

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