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Where'd that phrase come from #34

Created date

July 6th, 2011

Pulling my leg

In 19th-century England, it was a common ploy in street robberies to trip someone by grabbing their leg, causing them to fall. Once on the ground, the thieves would relieve the hapless pedestrian of his belongings. The phrase is used today in reference to tripping someone mentally or even taunting them with a fib or joke. "A laptop computer for only $50? You're pulling my leg." 

Old sawbones  

During the American Civil War, medical treatment was still in its infancy. Battlefield wounds were devastating, resulting in massive physical trauma and, in most cases, deadly infections. Add to this the incredible numbers of casualties that poured into field hospitals and what you had was a very difficult situation for Army surgeons. They were forced to work quickly and possessed neither the knowledge nor the technology to address flesh wounds and broken bones with the surgical precision possible today. Instead, they relied on amputation. Shot in the leg? Cut it off. Shot in arm? Cut it off. The grisly image of surgeons dressed in bloody aprons and holding filthy hacksaws eventually led people to refer to doctors by the macabre euphemism Old Sawbones. "My ankle s been hurting for the last week. I think I ll have to pay the old sawbones a visit." 

Pieces of eight/two bits 

While the term "pieces of eight" probably hasn t been used in centuries, a breakdown of its meaning actually leads us to a more modern phrase. The American dollar from its earliest days was based on the Spanish dollar, which was worth eight reales. This Spanish dollar could physically be cut into eight pieces to make change. These pieces were also called "bits," which is probably where we get the 19th and 20th century American references to $.25 as two bits.

Ballpark (estimate)

Back in the early days of baseball, it was far more difficult to get an exact fan count than it is today with turnstile counters and computerized ticket sales. That said, people simply settled for an estimate when they inquired about the number in attendance. More specifically, they got a ballpark estimate. "While I know you can t tell me exactly how much the renovation will cost, can you at least give me a ballpark estimate?"

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