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Brouhaha, Cop out, Blunderbuss, Lost your marbles/lose it

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July 28th, 2017
Photo of a jar of marbles tipped on its side, spilling marbles on the ground.

Ever wonder how expressions like “G-man” and “wound tight” came about? Below are a few phrases like this and their original meanings. The Tribune will have more for you next month.


Brouhaha

While etymologists aren’t entirely certain where this word came from, the general consensus points to Hebrew, and more specifically, the less literate members of late nineteenth-century Jewish congregations. 

A common phrase heard in synagogues amongst worshippers is “Baruch haba,” which literally translates to “Welcome” or “Blessed is He who comes.” Those who couldn’t read could only imitate what they heard, which usually came out as “Brouhaha.” 

In time, this misinterpretation took on a meaning of its own—namely, mild chaos or confusion, which is why we often call scuffles, arguments, and misunderstandings brouhahas.

“There was a big brouhaha over the board’s decision to cut dividends.”

Cop out

When someone “cops out,” they’ve essentially quit. They’ve found an easy way out of a difficult situation and have managed to avoid a challenge. 

The roots of the term “cop,” in this sense, reach back to nineteenth-century England, where the word was popular slang, meaning “to catch” or “grab.” By the 1920s, the Americans had begun using it (thanks to Doughboys who fought alongside the British during WWI).

In particular, Americans used phrases like “cop a plea,” which meant to testify in exchange for a lenient criminal sentence (that is, to grab a lighter punishment). Ultimately, the word “cop” became synonymous with this notion of an easy way out. 

Thus, the sweeping phrase “cop out” was born.

“The governor’s excuse that the ‘time is not right for this type of legislation’ is just a cop-out.”

Blunderbuss

The great-grandfather of the shotgun, the blunderbuss was the go-to weapon for seventeenth-century sailors. Sporting an odd bell-shaped muzzle, the gun was prized, not for pinpoint accuracy, but rather its ability to stop multiple attackers at once.

Its name comes from the Dutch word “donderbus” or “thunder pipe.” And a thunder pipe it was. 

Those who carried it packed the barrel with whatever they could find: rocks, glass and metal shards, lead balls. When they pulled the trigger, the blunderbuss would send a cloud of deadly debris into the targets. 

The blunderbuss saw action up through the eighteenth century, when it was replaced by more practical improvements. But its thunderous name lives on in language.

Indeed, the term blunderbuss today refers to actions that lack both subtlety and precision, much like its seventeenth-century namesake.

“Prohibition was a blunderbuss that did little to curb immoral behavior.”

Lost your marbles/lose it

If you’ve “lost your marbles,” you have, in effect, gone crazy. The phrase comes from the mid-nineteenth-century use of “marbles” in reference to one’s personal effects. 

By the early 1900s, these personal effects included one’s sanity. To lose your marbles was to lose your mind.

Eventually, we shortened the phrase to “lose it.”  

“When they saw him cutting his grass with scissors, they knew he’d lost his marbles.”

 

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