Tribune Print Share Text

Where’d that phrase come from #24

Created date

August 4th, 2010


During the Civil War, prison camps had rails that ran a specified perimeter. Guards had orders to shoot on sight, and without question or warning, any prisoner who crossed that line (the deadline). Most notably, this was the case at Camp Douglas, a prison for Confederate POWs in Chicago, Ill.

Today, the word s current usage refers to nothing as extreme as that of Camp Douglas, but it does seem to imply consequences if one does not have an assignment or project completed on time.

"I have to get this story in on deadline, or there will be trouble."

Time to circle the wagons

Life in the prairies of the American territories was dangerous in the 19th century. Native Americans angry over military and civilian encroachment often sent out parties to scout the surrounding areas. For those traveling through these regions, the prime mode of defense was to form a circle with their wagons before an attack. This would create a makeshift fortification and provide some cover from arrows and small arms fire. Of course, this was all well and good so long as you had advance warning of an attack, thus giving you time to circle the wagons and corral the horses. In its modern context, the phrase refers to the time necessary to create some sort of defense, for instance, legal.

"He received a notice that he would appear before a Congressional committee. He needed time to circle the wagons in preparations."

Behind the curve/ahead of the curve

It probably goes without saying that behind the curve is not where a person wants to be. This refers to the probability curve (or normal distribution curve) created by Carl Friedrich Gauss. The bell curve, at its peak, represents the mean or average. The area to the left of the peak (behind the curve) is below average; to the right (ahead of the curve), above average.

If you're behind the curve, you're not keeping up with the class or your job, and if you're ahead of it, you're doing quite well.

"Our team's performance this year was behind the curve compared to the rest of those in professional baseball."

"She may be a new employee, but she is certainly ahead of the curve in terms of job performance."

(Get) gypped

Particularly throughout the 1800s, people characterized Gypsies as a group inclined to swindling and thievery. In fact, so popular was the notion that it gave rise to the pejorative term gypped, meaning that one was cheated or ripped off. "I paid a lot of money for this stereo, and already it doesn't work. I think I've been gypped."