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