Sometimes we update their meaning. Sometimes not.
Some of these phrases are centuries old. Others, older generations remember the technologies well—fondly, even. But younger people have never used them. Or perhaps never even seen them.
But the language lingers.
Mind your Ps and Qs
This phrase is so old that its origins have been lost, and none of the plausible explanations completely satisfy. For example, printers could easily mix up lower case ps and qs, but they didn’t use qs very much. It must have been more common to mix up bs and ds.
Or perhaps in pubs, they kept track of pints and quarts with hash marks on the wall. It’s easy to cheat, so both patrons and the pub owner would have to watch carefully so they wouldn’t be cheated. But did anyone write on the wall?
Or did French dancing masters warn pupils to be careful about pieds and queues?
Today the phrase as often means “mind your manners” as much as it does “be careful.” Ah sweet mystery!
Heard it through the grapevine
Early telegraph wires reminded people of grapevines. So telegraph messages came “through the grapevine.” During the Civil War, however, when commanders used telegraphs to communicate battleground reports, the enemy could easily tap into the wire and send a conflicting report. So the person receiving the message had no way to know which story was reliable.
Nowadays, then, if you heard something through the grapevine, it’s a rumor you can’t substantiate.
Don’t telegraph your punches
When not trying to confuse rival armies, people sent telegrams to notify people that something would happen.
A street fighter or a bad boxer had mannerisms that would clue the opponent about the next punch he intended. Reflexively cocking his arm was as good as sending a telegraph. It was a good way to get knocked out. So skilled boxers learned how to avoid giving clues like that.
Sound like a broken record
The earliest phonograph record disks are barely more than a century old. They were made of wax and frequently broke. And of course they couldn’t be played any more.
The later and sturdier vinyl records didn’t break as easily, but they’d get scratched. If the needle couldn’t get past a scratch, it would simply skip and repeat.
So if someone sounds like a broken record, it means they keep repeating themselves over and over.
By the way, the promise of fully automated transportation didn’t start with the recent buzz about driverless cars. There’s an old joke that, just before takeoff, passengers on an airplane heard a recorded announcement: “This flight runs completely on automatic pilot. There is no human pilot to make errors. Nothing can go wrong. Go wrong. Go wrong. Go wrong . . .”
In the limelight
Limelight was a strong light made by subjecting calcium oxide (quicklime) to high heat. It was originally developed for surveyors in 1825, but it was used to illuminate a night-time outdoor juggling performance in 1836 and for a stage performance in 1837.
In the theater, limelights functioned as follow spotlights to highlight a featured performer, but they haven’t been used since the late 19th century. I think people today recognize that whoever is in the limelight is important. But what does a green citrus fruit have to do with anything?
Steal my thunder
Here’s another theatrical saying that came along before limelight. It’s meaning is clear enough, but it has nothing to do with a natural weather event.
John Dennis found a novel way to make the sound of thunder for a play he produced at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1704.
It’s not clear just what he did, but it involved metal balls in a wooden bowl. His play flopped, but Drury Lane soon used his method of making thunder in a production of Macbeth. Dennis was furious: “They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!”
We’ve stolen his complaint, too.