Blackmail

We’ve all heard the term "blackmail," which is the act of extorting money or privilege from someone by threatening to go public with sensitive information. But strangely, it has nothing at all to do with mail. 

Lily livered

If you call someone “lily livered,” you’re saying that he or she is a coward. The term is most closely associated with cheesy lines from Western films, especially when a drunken cowpoke feels compelled to challenge another to a “shootin’ match at high noon.”  

Blue collar

When a bigwig executive gets caught embezzling from his company, we say that so-and-so committed a “white collar crime.” Of course, the white collar refers to the dress shirt that executives wear. Why, then, do we call manual laborers and tradesmen “blue collar workers”?

Blue collar

When a bigwig executive gets caught embezzling from his company, we say that so-and-so committed a “white collar crime.” Of course, the white collar refers to the dress shirt that executives wear. Why, then, do we call manual laborers and tradesmen “blue collar workers”?

Chump change

As we all know, “chump change” is nothing to write home about. We use the phrase in reference to everything from pathetic paychecks to comparative contexts in which we want to emphasize another’s wealth. (For example, $1 million is chump change to Bill Gates.) 

Spick-and-span

When we say that something is “spick-and-span,” it means that it’s as clean as new—quite literally. Unlike many of the terms we’ve reviewed, this one is purely foreign-language based. There are no quirky stories, no historical events that we can attribute to it.

Caboose

We don’t see one all that often today, but the caboose was an essential part of the freight train for many years. It served as shelter for crew members, whose tasks included switching points on the tracks and watching the cars in transport to ensure against load shifting and other hazards.

Gerrymander(ing)

When a state engages in gerrymandering, it’s dividing voting districts into units that will give a particular party the advantage in an election. The term derives its name from Elbridge Gerry, a member of the first Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Chop suey

Over time, this term has assumed a slang meaning similar to that of mincemeat. For example, “If you mess around with that bully, he’ll make chop suey out of you.”

Chauffeur

Wouldn’t it be nice to get into a limo in the morning, a cup of coffee in one hand, your newspaper in the other? The only thing required of you would be to tell your chauffeur where you want him to take you.

No skin off my back

Surprisingly, this phrase hasn’t been around for too long. First used in the early twentieth century, its variations include “no skin off my nose” and “no skin off my teeth.” Of course, “no skin off my back” is the most common version in America, and it comes from the age-old punishment of flogging.