Throw up the sponge

To “throw up the sponge” is to give up, particularly in a contest of some kind. The phrase comes from the world of pugilism.

Hoi polloi

We peons who are members of the masses are otherwise known as “hoi polloi.” The term pulls directly from Greek and means, quite literally, “the many.”

While the Greeks commonly used the phrase as early as the mid-seventeenth century, its first recorded usage in English didn’t appear until the early 1800s.

Fresh

To get “fresh” with someone is to talk back or get sassy. Still used today, the term first appeared in the U.S. as English slang in the late 1840s.

Etymologists believe it comes from the German word “frech,” which means insolent, rude, or disrespectful.

“Don’t get fresh with me, son!”

Cheek (cheeky)

Potter’s field

A “potter’s field” is a cemetery for the poor and unknown. Especially common in urban areas, these burial grounds can be found in just about every major city.

But why do we call them potter’s fields?

It comes from the New Testament’s Matthew 27:3-8, in which the Jewish priests accept 30 pieces of silver from a repentant Judas:

Colossal

In the days of Ancient Rome and Greece, a “colossus” was a giant statue—one that made the viewer feel significantly smaller, even overpowered by its appearance. An example is the Colossus of Rhodes, which once stood at the Greek island’s harbor entrance.

Filibuster

The term “filibuster” is most appropriate following California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s marathon hijacking of the House floor in February. Quite simply, a “filibuster” is when a member of Congress rambles on interminably about a particular topic to delay or otherwise entirely obstruct the decision-making process.

Head honcho

“Head honcho” is a casual reference to the person in charge of a community or organization. Etymologists believe the phrase came into use around the mid-1950s, which makes sense considering that the United States had just fought two Asian wars.

Cranky

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

Coward

No one throughout history has ever looked with favor upon a “coward.” From the very beginning, it was a term laced with stigma.

The word most likely comes from the Latin term cauda, or tail. Naturally, the image here is that of an animal “turning tail” and running away, or perhaps creeping off with its “tail between its legs.” 

Steerage

Watch James Cameron’s blockbuster film Titanic (1997), and you’ll hear the word “steerage” about a thousand times. No longer used in today’s luxury cruise industry, “steerage” was a staple term aboard nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ocean liners.

Longshoreman/men

Travel to any major port and you’ll see them. Longshoremen are the lifeblood of the shipping industry. 

They’re the ones who load and unload the massive cargo vessels that carry a huge variety of goods into and out of the United States every day. 

As for the word itself, “shoreman” is clear enough. But what about “long”?

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.