Tag Archives: Idiom

Show Your True Colors: Pirates & Warfare

Hello bologna readers! Happy Tuesday. This one’s a day late, so you have my apologies, but if it’s any concession, this one’s a good one.

Showing your true colors. You think you know someone, right? The phrase refers to someone who reveals their real intentions through some form of deceit. Why is it colors? Why don’t just use the word motive instead?

Well, as with many of these expressions, this one goes back to the high seas, so, let’s go along with it.

What do you think of when you hear the word Pirate? I’ll bet most of you are thinking the same thing: that peg-legged, eye-patched sailor who sails the seven seas with his swashbuckling friends, finds buried treasure & engages in heroic ocean battles while yelling, “Avast!” & “Arrrrrrr!”.

That’s the notion that Hollywood has put into our heads. Who doesn’t like a dramatic story, & if the leading character is a pirate, well, he has to be the good guy, right?

Not so fast. Pirates were a despicable bunch (think of the horrifying pirates of today, only with technology of the Seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries). They were nasty & weren’t afraid to steal, kidnap, rape, capture ships, spread disease & any other awful thing you can think of. Don’t believe me? Just read this Cracked article by Eric Yosomono & Jean Flynn. One of the entries from this list of terrifying pirates is about a guy who took a bite of a human heart before shoving it into another prisoner’s face & threatening to do the same thing to him. So, needless to say, these guys were not people you wanted to mess with.


A pirate murdering the crap out of someone. (Image in Public Domain)

After hearing that, it might not surprise you to learn that dishonesty was a also common trait among pirates. Law abiding sailors, especially merchants & explorers, were always fearing pirate attacks. These ocean-going outlaws were much harder to detect & combat back then. This caused many ships to be tricked, & seized or sunk. This is due to one pirate battle tactic, which blatant flew in the face of contemporary rules of naval warfare.

In the days of sailing ships & cannon battles, “colors” was just another word for flag. Warships were required to display the flag of their respective nation.  A lowered flag meant a surrender (This is also where the phrase, “nailing your colors to the mast” comes from: if the ship had absolutely no intention of surrendering, a flag nailed to its mast would negate the chance of it accidentally being lowered). It was simply a way of identifying a ship’s allegiance & a way to distinguish it from its enemy. Here’s where the pirate’s tactic came in. They would fly the flag of the nation to which the ship they were ambushing belonged. Now that the outlaws had their prey believing they were friendly, they could sneak up really close. Just before attacking, they would lower the flag & replace it with some form of the Jolly Roger, showing their true colors, & therefore, true intentions.


The true colors of pirate ships: the Jolly Roger (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user, WarX)

Pretty sneaky, huh?

Now you know; you’re welcome.


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Back to Square One: Soccer & Children’s Games

Happy Monday, everyone. I hope you all had a good weekend & that you’ve settled well into your mondays. Let’s kick off he week with a new Bill’s Bologna post.

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally have a post about an idiom for you all. So, here it is:

“Back to square one” is a common phrase, which means starting over. Different groups of etymologists argue over how it actually started, but the general consensus is that it came from one of three places. The three explanations deal with popular sports & games, which are still played today.

Here they are:

This one’s very simple. In hopscotch, you draw numbered squares on the ground. You throw a stone & hop from square to square in numerical order. The square on which the stone landed is skipped. When you’ve reached the end, you go backwards, to square one.


Hopscotch as illustrated by Isiah Thomas in his 1767 book, A Pretty Little Pocket Book
(Image in Public Domain)

Chutes & Ladders:
I would be really surprised if anyone reading this hasn’t played Chutes & Ladders because it’s one of the most common children’s board games of all. It’s also one of the oldest.
In 1943, Milton Bradley changed the snakes to chutes, or slides, & marketed it to American children. What most people don’t know is that the game was played as far back as the Sixteenth Century. It was Indian & was called Moksha Patam.


Your journey towards your destiny in the caste system- The original version of Snakes (Chutes) & Ladders, from India
(Image in Public Domain)

The game was played on a numbered grid which vared from 8×8 to 12×12. Across the board, there were ladders & snakes connecting different squares. If you landed on the bottom of a ladder, you could bypass some squares, but if you landed on the head of a snake, you had to backtrack to the square where the snake’s tale was. Unlike most games at the time, which emphasized strategy, this one was meant to symbolize destiny. All you had to do was roll the dice & move your piece. Whether or not you landed on a ladder or snake square was where your pawn (symbolic for your soul) was desined to land. Here’s where the phrase comes in. If you landed on a snake head leading back to the first square, you had to start over because you were sent back to square one. Makes sense, right?

Another group of etymologists believe that it dates back to the BBC broadcasts of soccer.
Back in the 1930s, radio was huge. There weren’t any TVs yet, so this is how sports fans were able to experience games. Radio announcers from the British Broadcasting Corporation would divide the soccer field up a 2 x 4 grid. They’d number the squares, with 1 & 2 on one side, & 7 & 8 on the other. I was easier for someone at home to picture where the ball was if the announcer had a clear area to describe.
BBC fans adamantly argue that this is the true origin, but as the English site, The Phrase Finder, points out, there are a few problems with this one, the biggest one being the fact that just because a ball is kicked into the first square, doesn’t mean that the game started over. The site also mentions that the squares on the field are much more rectangular than square, but I think that may be nit-picking a bit.

Soccer Squares as described by BBC sports announcers

Soccer Squares as described by BBC sports announcers

Any of these seem plausible to me, but then there’s this quotation. It’s from 1952, & it pops up everywhere, as one of the first times the phrase is used in this context.

He has the problem of maintaining the interest of the reader who is always being sent back to square one in a sort of intellectual game of snakes and ladders.

The Phrase Finder claims that it is, in fact, the first time this is documented on paper & that after the 1930s, announcers stopped calling games like this. Therefore, it’s not likely that this is a true story. Again, it’s speculation.

I tend to lean towards the Chutes & Ladders origin, but again, they’re all considered plausible. Which one do you think?

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Have a great rest of the week & I’ll see you at my next post.

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Put a Sock in it: Adjusting Volume & Life in the Trenches

Last week, a friend of mine asked me to do a post letting you all know where “putting your foot in your mouth” comes from. After a lot of looking, the best answer I can come up with is that nobody really knows.

To make up for it, I’m going to do another one this week.

Put a sock in it! It sounds similar to the requested phrase, but the meaning is completely different. For those who don’t know, it’s a way to tell someone to be quiet & it’s usually used impatiently.

The common consensus is that it’s a reference to phonographs, or record players. We all know what a record player looks like today, with the turntable & needle. When you hook it up to speakers, let it play & you have some amazing purely analog sound, the likes of which, you can’t get anywhere else. The phonograph was “invented” in 1877 by Thomas Edison (By invented, I mean had parts stolen from devices which had already been invented, all while killing animals to discredit real inventors) & back then, it looked a little different.

My opinion of Edison aside, phonographs work by putting a needle to thin grooves in either a cylindrical or disk shaped record. The vibration of the needle against tiny ridges in the grooves creates sound. Try playing a record with the volume all the way down. You can hear the music coming from the grooves. It’s very quiet, so these days, a wire attached to the needle converts the vibrations into a signal. It runs from the needle to the receiver, & then on to the speakers. The first phonograph wasn’t powered by electricity. This meant that there was no electrical signal & no speakers. Instead, the amplification came in the form of an amplifying horn. It worked on the same principle as early megaphones.


A phonograph: Based on a painting of the same name, this is the original advertisement & logo for the Victor Talking Machine Company, maker of the famous phonograph brand, Victrola. It would eventually be bought out by RCA & that company would acquire the logo rights. PS the dog’s name is Nipper.
(Image of advertisement is in Public Domain)

Phonographs could only play at one volume level because the only thing that determined the volume level depended on the size of the horn was. In some cases, it was too loud for a room. The only way to turn the volume down was to throw a rag -possibly a sock- in.

The website, World Wide Words claims that this isn’t likely because one of he first written examples shows up in 1929. It shows up in a book by Frederic Manning called The Middle Parts of Fortune. It’s about his experiences in the World War I trenches. The passage is this:

“I’m not miserable, corporal,” said little Martlow. “We’re not dead yet. On’y I’m not fightin’ for any fuckin’ Beljums, see. One o’ them buggers wanted to charge me five frong for a loaf o’ bread.”
“Well, put a sock in it. We’ve ’ad enough bloody talk now.”

Another use shows up in 1919 in a special wartime series of articles & illustrations in an Australian magazine called Western Mail. World Wide Words claims that since 1919 was well after phonographs made their way into people’s homes, it’s most likely that the phrase nothing more than wartime slang that the soldiers brought back.

I tend to like the first explanation a little more because I’m a music freak & it’s a little more romanticized than, “A bunch of soldiers just kind of said it.”

At any rate, it’s certainly an interesting expression & its origins seem just as interesting.

There you have it; you’re welcome.

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