In my quest for the origin of the idiom “talking turkey” for last week’s column, I found myself wandering down side roads, distracted by other quaint figures of speech. You could say my search opened a can of worms.
I was surprised to learn that, in the 1950s, fishermen on the Mainland bought actual cans of earthworms at bait stores. I had always thought it was just a silly cartoon thing, like Wile E. Coyote’s ACME devices. In fact, when I heard the phrase used, I assumed it originated with Looney Tunes.
The “can of worms” factoid led to an explanation of “pipe dream,” which actually startled, rather than surprised, me. I was probably a young teen when I first heard the term, and it prompted a mental image of water flowing through a conduit. I guess I associated “pipe dream” with having one’s hopes go “down the drain.” Turns out I had the wrong kind of pipe in mind. According to Merriam-Webster and numerous other sources, the phrase was coined in 1890 and referred to the fantasies brought about by smoking opium.
Some expressions have been rendered obsolete by technology, like “sounding like a broken record” or “dropping a dime” on someone. No one gets in trouble for “dipping their pen in the company inkwell” these days.
Yet there are many common terms that prevail despite literal antiquity. We still “hang up” our phones and “roll up” our car windows, even though we don’t, really. Some of my broadcast colleagues persist in imploring listeners to “tune in” to a specific frequency “on your radio dial.” And folks who have never used a typewriter often “cc” people via email. They might even know what the letters stand for, but it’s a sure bet they’ve never seen a sheet of carbon paper. Ditto for ditto machines.
My etymology excursion led to a sobering moment (and yet another diversion from the path) when the word “clockwise” appeared on a list of “expressions younger kids won’t understand.” Recalling something I’d read a few months ago, I searched for details on a news story about British schools removing analog clocks from classrooms. According to The (London) Telegraph, some schools have found that many students are unable to tell time on an old-fashioned clock face and become overly stressed in test situations because they can’t figure out how much time they have left. So the schools are replacing the scary clocks with digital ones. In the U.S., educators are discussing whether to even continue teaching children how to read an analog clock, much like the debate over cursive writing.
But I digress. Looking up these old saws and rediscovering long-forgotten sayings, I started thinking about pidgin words and phrases that have fallen out of use over the past generation or two. I guess evolution occurs in every living language. Sadly, in the case of pidgin, or Hawaii Creole English, it seems that most of the neglected words are non-English. The very essence of pidgin — its multicultural roots — is being diluted.
Not since hanabata days have I been told to “pio da light and go moemoe.” Back then, I thought pio was the local pronunciation of “peel” and that “peel the light” referred to turning it off, as in peeling off skin. It wasn’t until adulthood that I learned it was a Hawaiian word for “extinguish.” Moemoe (sleep) is also a Hawaiian word, but I grew up thinking it was Japanese. Same with “cabeza” (head, in Spanish) and “bambucha” (really big!, probably of Portuguese origin), two more words I haven’t heard in ages.
Small kid time, we used to “hemo” (take off) our clothes to “go bocha” (bathe). Parents cautioned us against being “tantaran” (show-off) or “high maka maka” (stuck-up), with two little words: “No ack!”
Even phrases and words that my generation coined have already fallen out of favor. Cool your jets, wop your jaws, hammajang . . . all ma-ke die dead. Sigh. Thinking about it makes me all futless.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.