9 Common Idioms That Come from Technology

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This is our first and last submission from our mysterious Third Intern, Fan Jin. But it’s the last for a great reason: She’s been accepted to MIT for grad school. Congratulations, Fan!

FAN JIN – We all know that plenty of common idioms come from the Bible and the writings of Shakespeare—think “forbidden fruit” and “all’s well that ends well”—but what about phrases from science and technology? I looked at some everyday phrases and exposed their technological beginnings. Note: I did my best to find first origins and uses of these terms, but I am certainly open to any criticism or clarification of my research. I wouldn’t consider these canonical reference.

• “Push the envelope

Common definition: Extreme, testing the limits (e.g. “That backside 1440 on the halfpipe was really pushing the envelope, broseph!”)

Original definition: In aviation, the term flight envelope has been used since WWII to define the limit of what is safe to fly (engine power, maneuverability, wind speed, altitude). By “pushing the envelope”, test pilots were able to find out the limits of aircraft. The “envelope” was a mathematical term to describe the boundaries of a set of numbers-like performance data from test aircraft.

First use: The phrase was used in print as early as 1978 in an edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine: “The aircraft’s altitude envelope must be expanded to permit a ferry flight across the nation. NASA pilots were to push the envelope to 10,000 ft.” However, it was Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” that put the term into popular consciousness.

• “Three sheets to the wind

Common definition: Very, very drunk (e.g. “Chugging those long island ice teas put her three sheets to the wind, bro”)

Original definition: Sheets, as you may have guessed, is a nautical term. However, it does not mean “sail” as most people believe but instead refers to the rope that holds the sail in their lower corners. If the sheets were loose, the sail would flap around resembling the stumbling of a very drunk sailor. Sailors had a scale for the level of drunkeness: one sheet to the wind being just a bit tipsy and three sheets meaning full-on plastered.

First use: The earliest printed mention is in Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London from 1821: “Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind.”

• “Acid test

Common definition: A rigorous or critical test (e.g. “Our sister’s performance in the regional championship will be an acid test of her abilities, brother.”)

Original definition: No LSD origins here. The acid test initially referred to the test prospectors used in the California Gold Rush to identify gold. Unlike base metals, gold does not react with most acids but does react to aqua regia, a combination of hydrochloric and nitric acids. The acid test was used to confirm that a find was indeed gold baby, gold!

First use: From The Burlington Hawk-eye, an Iowa paper, dated 1877, mid-Gold Rush, in a piece entitled “Counterfeit Coins – the perfection of a wicked art”: “This coin is of right weight, rings out clear and sharp, and will stand the acid test.”

• “On the same wavelength

Common definition: Thinking similarly, understanding each other (e.g. “My therapist really understands me. We’re on the same wavelength. Oh, brother!”)

Original definition: Literally, listening to a radio transmission on the same wavelength as someone else.

First use: The earliest use we could find was in a 1975 issue of The Economist: “Well, Mr. Ford’s Administration and the Congress…which is all right so long as they are on the same wavelength.”

• “Out of steam

Common definition: Tired, given up. (e.g. “I find after sorting the hounds, dear brother, I am quite out of steam.”)

Original definition: Obvious, when you think about it. In the days of steam engines, engines would slow and stop when there wasn’t enough steam pressure produced by the boiler.

First use: From an 1898 edition of The Perry Daily Chief, an Iowa newspaper: “…that made it impossible for me to get in one word to her hundred. I stood it for a little while in hope she would run out of steam or material, but she gathered force as she went.”

• “Throw a spanner in the works

Common definition: Deliberately causing confusion, sabotaging something. (e.g. “The monk was bitter about his ouster and decided to throw a spanner in the works by stealing all the yeast from his brothers’ brewery.”)

Original definition: Another obvious one once you think about it. Throwing a spanner into machinery like an engine would cause a lot of chaos. What’s a spanner? It’s a wrench—the same phrase in America would be “throwing a wrench in the works.”

First use: The first record of it in print is in P. G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934: “He should have had sense enough to see that he was throwing a spanner into the works.”

• “Critical mass

Common definition: The minimum amount of resources/people needed to start and/or sustain a project or event (e.g. “Once the number of people in the sewing convetion hit critical mass, it moved with its own momentum, carrying individuals right into the Brother booth.”)

Original definition: The smallest amount of fissionable material necessary for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. Scary stuff.

First use: Extensive searching has uncovered very little about the first printed use but it’s safe to assume the term flowed into the mainstream during the atomic age.

• “A flash in the pan

Common definition: Something showy that initially impresses but doesn’t bring any real results. (e.g. “The singer’s career as Elvis’s long lost brother was just a flash in the pan.”)

Original definition: Flintlock muskets used to have small pans to hold charges of gunpowder. When a musket was fired (the gunpowder flared up) but the bullet didn’t discharge, it was a flash in the pan.

First use: The term has been known since the late 17th century. Elkanah Settle, in Reflections on several of Mr. Dryden’s plays, 1687, had this to say: “If Cannons were so well bred in his Metaphor as only to flash in the Pan, I dare lay an even wager that Mr. Dryden durst venture to Sea.”

• “Tune in

Common definition: To understand someone’s message. (e.g. “Turn on; Tune in; Drop out.”)

Original definition: Literally, to turn the dial of a radio to receive a certain frequency.

First use: It’s hard to pinpoint when tuning in went from its radio jargon roots to hit it big in primetime TV but we’d put our money on the original Batman series. Tune in tomorrow! Leary’s admonishment (above) may have juiced its use somewhat, too.

A final note: I borrowed pretty heavily from two awesome websites to research this article: http://www.phrases.org.uk/ and http://www.worldwidewords.org/ . Visit either for more etymological, idiomatic fun. Be warned though that spending too much time at these sites may make you sound a like a bit of a know-it-all at parties, which may or may not be to your advantage.

Image: Whistling in the Dark

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39 Responses to 9 Common Idioms That Come from Technology

  1. Xopher says:

    I suspect that the association of ‘acid test’ with LSD comes from a book called The Electric Kool-Ade Acid Test, which punned on the term ‘acid test’. Obviously the term had to pre-exist the book for that to work.

    Ye 24: I agree about #10. Nothing but Number Two in that comment.

  2. murray says:

    No. Text in all caps is annoying because it feels like being shouted at.

    Interesting stuff though, thanks!

  3. gabrielm says:

    I have always used “litmus test” instead of “acid test”. A quick jaunt to wikipedia indicates that they are, in fact, subtly different idioms:

    Acid test: A rigorous test or appraisal of the quality or worth of someone.

    Litmus test: Any kind of social indicator used to classify someone either favorably or unfavorably.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “A spanner in the works” is predated by the French word “sabotage”, which has several fascinating possible etymologies depending on which sense of the word “shoe” (“sabot”) is taken.

  5. Anonymous says:

    a few more technology related idioms here.
    I won’t mollycoddle, there are some good stories behind these. go Internet

    deus ex machina
    to rack your brains
    as mad as a hatter
    to pull out all the stops
    to have x to a t
    building a head of steam
    going balls out
    balls to the wall
    by the seat of your pants
    cut to the chase
    to pull focus
    to crash and burn

    and an honourable metion should be given to

    pull yourself up by your bootstraps

    as an idiom thats made its way in to the technical language of today :-).. see boot & bootstrapping.

  6. georgejmyers says:

    I’ve also read “three sheets to the wind” is when a ship was in peril in a storm and could not set an iron anchor (dragged or lost), it would deploy a canvas “sheet” under water in hopes that a prevailing current would keep it off the rocks or other disaster. To set three would have been very unusual and might presage imminent catastrophe. At least that’s another interpretation I’ve read.

  7. MT_Head says:

    #18 -“deus ex machina”

    I’d say it’s a bit of a stretch to call that one technology-related – it’s an old Latin phrase for a plot device in the even older Greek theatre, where a god was “flown” in on a rope and harness to wrap up all the loose ends. Sure, it’s technology – but rope-and-pulley technology.

  8. TomW says:

    Cool article (and great comments…)

    Another example of “on the same wavelength”: google news archive search turns up:

    Congress and State Department Sometimes Get Signals Crossed
    Pay-Per-View – Los Angeles Times – ProQuest Archiver – Jun 25, 1962
    There is an urgent need for some kind of communications satellite which will put the State Department and Congress on the same wavelength.

  9. philipb says:

    From my Cockney grandfather :

    “All mouth & no trousers” : talk the talk but don’t walk the walk

  10. controlbroke says:

    orig #18 here

    mt head.. i wouldn’t say it was a stretch at all… indeed that would be better applied to “rack your brains” another term with origins in rope and pulley tech. :-)

    as painful as that could be i am only horsing around, i take your point and i see it.
    as a plastic people we can pick up a rock and it becomes a tool. I would struggle to present that as a technology ‘it is a rock’, there is no art, no manufacture.
    but as soon as old owen started to chip away at his rock to form an edge, and his tool remained a tool when it was put back on the floor. ‘I’ would say we had a technology.
    i guess this depends on where you draw your lines, but just because a technology is simple by todays standards doesn’t make it any less effective or any less of a technology. in fact, to further compound this pulley argument. the mechanism is just as essential in todays worlds of skyscrapers and supertankers as it has ever been, there simply is no alternative and there doesn’t need to be. (apart from the arrest mechanism on aircraft carriers, that just strikes me as nutty).
    we are unlikely to hear of pulleys in our minutely minded tech news, because the mechanism is ironically too complex for force amplification/redirection in mems devices.
    just because its big doesn’t mean its not clever.

  11. Bilgez says:

    Here are a few that come from the old days of hot metal typesetting:
    “mind your p’s and q’s”

    I was taught that mind your P’s and Q’s came from Olde English Ale houses when a ruckus kicked off… The Tavern owner would ask patrons to mind their pints and quarts…

    but I’ve just found…

    – Mind your pints and quarts. This is suggested as deriving from the practise of chalking up a tally of drinks in English pubs (on the slate). Publicans had to make sure to mark up the quart drinks as distinct from the pint drinks. This explanation is widely repeated but there’s little to support it, apart from the fact that pint and quart begin with p and q.

    – Advice to printer’s apprentices to avoid confusing the backward-facing metal type lowercase Ps and Qs. I’ve never heard any suggestion that printer should mind their ds and bs though, even though that has the benefit of rhyming, which would have made it a more attractive slogan.

    – Mind your pea (jacket) and queue (wig). Pea jackets were short, rough woollen overcoats, commonly worn by sailors in the 18th century. Perruques were full wigs worn by fashionable gentlemen. It is difficult to imagine the need for an expression to warn people to avoid confusing them.

    – Mind your pieds (feet) and queues (wigs). This is suggested to have been an instruction given by French dancing masters to their charges. This has the benefit of placing the perruque in the right context – so long as we accept the phrase as being originally French. There’s no reason to suppose it is from France and no version of the phrase exists in French.

    – It is advice to children learning to write to take care not to mix up the lower-case letters p and q. Again, the ‘d’ and ‘b’ counter argument applies.

    – It derived as reminder to children to be polite. This is supposed to be as a form of ‘mind your pleases and thank-yous’ – ‘mind you pleases and kyous’. Pretty far-fetched that one.

    via: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/248000.html

    any guesses?

  12. jayessell says:

    There was an unusual usage of “on the same wavelength” in an episode of Xena Warrior Princess.

    The ‘Been There, Done That’ episode had Joxer saying it to Xena.

    Joxer: Yeah but you don’t eve… I knew this would happen someday, you and me on the same wavelength, two great minds, one thought.
    Gabrielle: Only half a wit.

    (Thanks for once IMDB.)

    I could no-prize that into him speaking in Greek, using a Greek expression which means ‘on the same wavelength’ because it’s a TV show and they aren’t supposed to be speaking English.

  13. Anonymous says:

    RE: balls out

    mechanical centrifugal governor controlling an engine: faster rotation caused hinged spherical metal weights to swing out farther from their axis.

  14. andygates says:

    “Acid test” – unlike, say, the litmus test, the acid test will destroy its failures.

    “P’s and Q’s” – I’ve never seen a quart served in a British pub, certainly not from the modern era.

  15. Anonymous says:

    to anonymous in response to GABRIELM:

    >>Acid Test – A test which will give you a definitive, yes or no answer, to any given subject.

    An acid test was used to verify that ore was in fact gold. Its use in the vernacular is to verify
    the truth of a claim or the stated value or quality of something. (e.g. The DNA test was really the acid test that proved he was her long-lost brother.)

    >>Litmus Test – Testing the water in a social situation to give an indication of an individuals personality, and/or intent.

    A litmus test is used in chemistry to give a definitive, yes or no answer, as to whether something is acid or base. Its use in social politics is similar (e.g. Is your brother for or against gay marriage?

  16. akbar56 says:

    re: “A flash in the pan”

    see also “going off half cocked”

  17. murray says:

    I’m surprised she didn’t include “not be your brother’s keeper”.

  18. Ye Olde Curmudgeon says:

    As a really old person, I, too, believe that “on the same wavelength” is much older than indicated in the article. Post 23 by Anonymous may be closer, but I’m almost sure I heard it earlier – I graduated from high school in 1960.

    My only other comment is a pfffft to the Anonymous who wrote comment #10. I will never understand the need for gratuitous, snide insults such as his or her closing remark. I could say that such remarks tell us something about the author’s lack of [insert trait here], but then I’d be doing the same thing, wouldn’t I?

    Over all, a good article and good discussion.

  19. Capn Barcode says:

    rlangg@22: Thanks! o/~ “the more you know…” o/~

  20. Xopher says:

    Bilgez: Folk etymology is a wondrous and annoying thing, isn’t it? *shakes head*

  21. Anonymous says:

    A “spanner” would be known to most Americans as a “monkey wrench.” I guess cartoons taught me to envision one as a large, adjustable pipe wrench. Throwing one into anything, as it would when thrown into “the works,” has the same effect.

  22. farrellmcgovern says:

    One that I hear all the time from parents is “down time” for their kids or from their kids. Originally from computers, refers to the time a system is turned off. Reminds me of a grate button from nancy’s button catalog: “Nice computers don’t go down”. :-)

    ttyl
    Farrell

  23. Anonymous says:

    “Pushing the envelope” is an aviation term, but I thought it originally described the visual effects of approaching the sound barrier. Right before an aircraft goes supersonic, the air condenses on all the leading edges, like it is “pushing” against something white, i.e. an envelope. Since so much testing was put into developing/testing aircraft capable at cruising at those speeds, it’s easy to see that the idiom became associated with stretching boundaries, especially technological ones.

  24. Anonymous says:

    In response to the “hot metal typesetting” phrases someone above mentioned-

    I think you mean “cold metal.” The Linotype (the “hot metal” way) was invented not only to speed typesetting process but also to avoid the issue of running out of a ‘sort’ or mistaking a P for a Q.

    Linotype operation, as well as hand typesetting, are on the verge of being totally archaic skills.

  25. radiationvibe says:

    How come there is no mention of ‘brother’ in the explanation of the “Tune In” idiom?

    I was waiting for the chorus, and I got stiffed.

  26. Tiengow says:

    “Going balls out” and “Balls to the wall” come from the era of steam engines. The governor, or speed regulator, on a steam engine consisted of a pair of lever arms pivoted at one end and with weighted balls on the other ends.This device turned on a spindle with the engine. Stopped, these balls hung down, but as speed increased, centrifugal force made them swing outward. Running “balls to the wall” meant running the engine at maximum speed so that the governor’s balls stood straight out from the pivot.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Nice article..
    I did wonder if she got a semester of tuition paid for each usage of the word “brother” or a form of it.
    In the event that this is truth or partially true –
    “Whoa, Way to go bro! You knocked my knickers back on that one!” – Ted

  28. Capn Barcode says:

    radiationvibe@8: why would ‘brother’ have anything to do with ‘tune in’? I’m baffled; I have no idea what chorus you might be talking about.

  29. Rlangg says:

    to Capn Barcode : The author, when providing common definitions, included some form of the word ‘brother’-to the point of distraction- in every definition except for “tune in.” Maybe it’s an April Fools joke.

  30. Anonymous says:

    @GABRIELM – How are they even remotely connected?

    Acid Test – A test which will give you a definitive, yes or no answer, to any given subject.

    Litmus Test – Testing the water in a social situation to give an indication of an individuals personality, and/or intent.

    The differences between those are about as subtle as your lack of comprehension.

  31. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    “as mad as a hatter”
    hatters suffered neurological damage from the mercury used in treating felt
    “to pull out all the stops”
    Refers to a pipe organ’s controls
    “building a head of steam”
    In a boiler such as a locomotive or stationary engine
    “balls to the wall”
    Aviation, probably
    “cut to the chase”
    “to pull focus”
    Film making

  32. trosinski01 says:

    Here are a few that come from the old days of hot metal typesetting:
    “mind your p’s and q’s”
    “out of sorts”
    “out of order”

  33. Anonymous says:

    http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA081EFF3E5C137A93CBAB178AD85F468685F9&scp=10&sq=%22on+the+same+wavelength%22&st=p

    shows a 1962 NY Times article that uses the phrase ‘on the same wavelength';

    “LONDON, Jan. 28–Britain’s negotiations for membership in the European Economic Community are now more than three months old, but the two sides are still not on the same wavelength….
    January 29, 1962 – By EDWIN L. DALE Jr. “

  34. Anonymous says:

    Check out the book “A Hog on Ice and Other Curious Expressions” by Charles Earle Funk, available at both Amazon and Powell’s.

  35. Anonymous says:

    haha.. lol.. nice post..
    oh and congratz on getting accepted on grad dude.. cheers! :D

  36. Tiengow says:

    Quote: “Litmus Test – Testing the water in a social situation to give an indication of an individuals[sic] personality, and/or intent.”

    In this context it is more often used with the connotation of a pass/fail test that overrides other factors: e.g. “his stance on gun control is the litmus test that determines whether I can vote for him.

  37. Anonymous says:

    “Garbage in. Garbage Out” — pretty classic computer term.

    vuong pham

  38. Tiengow says:

    We unfortunately hear a lot about “down time” related to computers, but the term far predates the computer era. It simply refers to being off-duty, especially in a military context, such as when a unit is told to “stand down” after being “on alert”.

  39. Xopher says:

    Hmm, Trosinski01, I think my dictionary’s etymology says that ‘mind your ps and qs’ comes from children’s confusion of the two letters, but you might be right.

    The thing that interests me in this is that no one thinks of ‘upper case’ and ‘lower case’ as metaphors, but they are–now. Originally they referred to the fact that movable-type letters were kept in two physical cases, the upper for capital letters, the lower for non-capital letters. (And ‘capital’ is metonymic rather than metaphoric, since the name comes from such letters’ use on capitals, which are the tops of (architectural) columns.) The term ‘font’ (in the sense of a printed typeface) has a similar origin.

    Cases are long gone, but the terms persist, probably because we lack any others. ‘Majuscule’ and ‘minuscule’ are close, but only for the Roman alphabet. In Russian, for example, “lowercase” handwriting is minuscule, but in printing both “cases” are majuscule, the capitals simply being larger.

    Which leads to the use of ‘minuscule’ to mean ‘small’. While minuscule letters are often smaller than their majuscule counterparts, that’s not at all what the term means (despite its obvious etymology). Take the “baseline” of the letters, and a parallel line across the tops of most letters: the space between them is called the minim. In minuscule scripts (lettering styles), some letters have parts that extend above (“ascenders”) or below (“descenders”) the minim. In majuscules, there are no ascenders or descenders, and all or nearly all the letters extend to the full height of the minim.

    Because this means majuscule letters are quite similar to one another, other things being equal majuscules are harder to read than minuscules (because distinctiveness helps the brain sort one letter from another). This is why text in all caps is so annoying.

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