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Cranky, jackknife, odds and ends, litmus test

Created date

February 16th, 2018
Image of a litmus test


The term “cranky” in modern conversation means someone is irritable or ill-tempered. Equivalent words include “crusty” or “grumpy.”

In the case of “cranky,” the etymological path leads back to late nineteenth-century Germany. Linguists believe our current usage of “cranky” comes from the German word “krank,” meaning to be sick, cross, or out of sorts. 

In time, English speakers anglicized the term, swapping the K for a C and adding a Y, presumably for adjectival emphasis. 

“Children who miss a nap are often cranky later in the day.”


Generally, when you hear the word “jackknife,” the first image that comes to mind is a wrecked big rig with its tractor wedged against the trailer at a 45-degree angle. 

This visual depiction is a reference to the folding pocketknife, once known as a “jackknife.” Its blade can be folded back into its handle and, in the process, resembles a “jackknifed” truck.

But the word “jackknife” comes from the world of seafaring. Sailors commonly carried these tools to the point where such knives were readily identified with them.

Because of its link to the mariners who carried them, the knife became known as a “jackknife,” which etymologists believe is a reference to a sailing vessel’s flag or “jack staff.”

“The highway was shut down due to a jackknifed tractor trailer.”

Odds and ends

With spring only a few months away, we’ll soon find ourselves busy with “odds and ends.” The phrase is a catchall reference to miscellaneous or remnant items, whether they be chores or physical objects.

In other words, you may have most of your spring cleaning finished save for a few odds and ends like wiping off the patio furniture.

The phrase goes back to the mid-sixteenth-century idiom “odd ends,” which originally referred to leftover scrap material such as fragments of cloth or lumber. The phrase later evolved into the better-known “odds and ends.”

“My spring cleaning is just about finished, save for a few odds and ends like shaking out the rugs.”

Litmus test

A dye derived from lichens, “litmus” turns red under acidic conditions and blue under alkaline conditions.

Strips of paper impregnated with litmus have long been used to test for the presence of acid—the change in color being an instant indicator of acidity or alkalinity.

This is where we get our figurative use of the term “litmus test,” which is any situation in which you arrive at a broad conclusion based on a single observation. 

If, for example, you only like people who love to read, you could perform your own figurative litmus test when you meet someone new. You merely ask if they enjoy reading. 

Just as red litmus paper is an indicator of acid, the individual’s opinion on reading is an indicator of whether you’ll get along with him or her.

“Some people use political party affiliation as a social litmus test.”