Monday, September 3, 2012

Word of the Week - Sit, Twiddle, and Twirl

Idle Hours by Henry Siddons Mowbray
 
Today I'm going to examine the origin of a particular phrase rather than a particular word. ;-) Friday, as I was working on Whispers from the Shadows, my hero was exclaiming something about how it was time to take action himself, since those who ought to be continued to...

Sit on their hands?
Twiddle their thumbs?

Do nothing, but that was far too boring an option for his current state of mind. So Roseanna headed to www.etymonline.com. =)

I was somewhat surprised to find sit on one's hands in the listing, because, well, I figured "sit" would have about a thousand idioms associated with it and didn't know if that would make the cut. But in fact, it was one of the few they included.

And certainly not around in 1814, when Whispers takes place. No, to sit on one's hands comes from the notion of doing so to withhold applause and originated in 1926. Not until the '50s did it get extended to "do nothing; be idle." 

So Thad certainly couldn't be accusing the politicians of sitting on their hands. What, then?

The next phrase to leap into mind was twiddling their thumbs. Here I got closer. Twiddle is from the 1540s, when it meant "to trifle." But the notion of twiddling one's thumbs, i.e., having nothing to do, didn't emerge until the 1840s. Closer, closer. But not quite there.

But in the entry for twiddle was the earlier phrase that twiddle one's thumbs replaced--to twirl one's thumbs. Ah! Fun. Enough of a variation to sound old-fashioned to us, but still recognizable. And from . . . 1816.

At first sight, argh. Because that's two years past my date. But then I remembered that etymonline uses the first written appearance (because what else could they possibly go on?) and in those days, a phrase usually appeared in writing several years after it had entered the common spoken vernacular. So I decided that was close enough, and my up-to-the-minute hero could well be using a newfangled,  popular phrase that his father would be less likely to try out. ;-)

And so a few key politicians in Washington City are twirling their thumbs. And Thad has decided it's time to do himself what they refuse to...

Happy Labor Day, all! Enjoy some idle time today. Sit on your hands for a while, guilt free. Or better still, pick up a good book. ;-)

1 comment:

  1. Fun! :)Sounds like that phrase was made for your book :)

    ReplyDelete