Every January 1, the calendar rolls over to a new year. For more than a century, cartoonists have used the image of a bearded old man for the old year and a baby for the new year. We can look forward to the new year with anticipation or dread. We can view the old year as a good year or a rotten year best forgotten. Except we can’t really forget.
The English language also keeps memory of the old and obsolete. We constantly use popular phrases long after the conditions that cause them have become obsolete. Some recall very old technology and others more recent. But by this time, we have to appeal to history to know where they came from.
Cart before the horse
Everyone knows that horses don’t push carts. They pull them. So the horse must be in front of the cart. The Roman politician Cicero wrote of putting the cart in front as a way of deriding doing things the wrong way. In fact, he implied that the phrase was even then an old proverb.
We don’t use cart horses much anymore, but that doesn’t keep us from using the phrase.
Long in the tooth
Horses’ teeth become longer as they grow older. So it’s possible to estimate a horse’s age by looking at its teeth. A horse that’s long in the tooth is an old horse. Someone inspecting a horse with thought of buying it might look in its mouth to see if the owner had honestly stated its age.
(And, by the way, if the horse was a gift, looking at its mouth was considered bad manners!).
The phrase “long in the tooth” implies old age for much more than horses. It can be used of other animals, people, dilapidated buildings, or machinery that’s on its last legs.
Irons in the fire
Blacksmiths worked iron into shape by hammering it when it was heated red hot. Eventually, it would become too cool to work, so he would have to put it back into the fire. That is, he would have to work on several pieces at once.
The ones he was not actively hammering would be in the fire to get red hot again. An efficient blacksmith would know how many irons he should have in the fire. An overly ambitious blacksmith might have too many irons in the fire and not be able to get to all of them.
Some readers might remember a kind of photograph called a slide. People would take slides on vacation and then show them to family and friends when they got back. Someone would put slides in a projector, or load them into trays, and the image would appear on a screen or wall. That is, the films would slide in and out of the projector during the course of a slideshow.
As it turns out, however, the phrase is older than photography. It comes from the “magic lantern” shows that originated in the 1600s. Those slideshows shone candles through glass plates with images painted on them. Clever operators could even make moving images.
As the years passed, magic lantern slideshows used ever brighter lights until the invention of electric lights. By that time, photographic slideshows also became popular.
Nowadays, computers can show sequences of images called slideshows. Presentation software also creates projectable images. The presentations, then, are also called slideshows. But nothing slides in and out anymore.
Drum up business
In the 19th century in the US, before mail-order catalogs and retail shops became common, companies hired traveling salesmen to go from town to town. They would travel by train or wagon and set up their business for a few days in a convenient location. They carried their sample wares in a wooden case covered with leather.
When they entered a town, they would bang on the case to let people know they had arrived. It’s no surprise, then, that they became known as drummers who came to town to drum up business.
Nowadays, businesses have lots of ways to drum up business. They just don’t use drummers anymore.
Not all these old phrases depend on obsolete technology, but even when it’s current, chances are not everyone knows about it.
When farmers cut hay, they roll it up and tie it together with a strong, thin wire. Naturally, it goes by the name haywire. It usually works very well, but it’s easily tangled. And tangled haywire is very difficult or even impossible to untangle.
The expression “go haywire” has a few related meanings. It can mean that something isn’t working properly, like haywire that doesn’t manage to make a nice bundle. Or it can mean out of control. Or turning wild and crazy—another way of saying flipping out.
The common term for diagonally opposite is catty corner, also spelled kitty corner or cater corner. The latter indicates the origin of the term. It’s a corruption of the French “quatre,” which means four.
It reminds me of an old joke about three cats stuck on floating ice, and they didn’t make it. I don’t remember how it goes, but the punch line was un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq (one, two, three cats sank).
For some reason lately, people have rendered it “caddy corner,” which makes no sense at all. That makes it overlap with my occasional series of people choosing the wrong word of a pair of homonyms, which I call Misused Pears.
I had a prospective employer ask me to send pictures of my car caddy corner. I don’t drive a Caddy, and since I don’t own golf clubs, I don’t have anyone to hold them for me. So I sent catty corner pictures instead.