The Bizarre History of 10 Common Sayings

#5. 'By the Short Hairs"

Now Means:
Being in such a strategically advantageous position that you can bend another person to your will. As in, "Once Hannah Montana's lawyers file suit, Disney's really going to have Cracked by the short hairs."

Most say it came from ...
The history behind "By the short hairs" is a strange one as the phrase (as it's used today) really has no history. One day somewhere in the world someone must have thought it would be funny to grab a dude by his pubes and refuse to let go--completely ignoring the poor fellow's yelps for mercy and womanly crying.

The grabber probably then realized that by putting this person in such a painfully precarious position he could then force them to, say, shovel the snow on the side walk, pay a long overdue debt or maybe just scream like a man having his pubes yanked like it was an S&M-themed tractor pull.

So is that true?
No. We made that one up because, as we stated, the reference to pubic hair has no history. When 'By the short hairs' was first coined it was referring to hair a bit north of the proverbial "junk."

The earliest documented usage of the phrase can be found in a novel written by the man that brought us The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling. His short nonfiction story, The Drums of the Fore and Aft had this quote:

"They'll shout and carry on like this for five minutes. Then they'll rush in, and then we've got 'em by the short hairs!"

It's explained elsewhere in the story that the hair being pulled is the hair on the back of the neck.

We know what you're feeling right now: betrayal, bewilderment and utter disappointment. We felt the same way. It's sad to see a phrase that brings to mind the violent pulling of pubes be debunked. But it makes sense, if you're walking around with your hand on some guy's pubes while he shovels your walk, aren't you the loser there?

So the phrase is being misused anyway. It'd make more sense to say, "Yes, we're up by 21 with just two minutes left! We're really making them touch our pubes now!"

#4. "Wrong End of the Stick"

Now Means:
Short end of the stick refers to getting screwed by chance, but wrong end refers to a misunderstanding. As in, "Whoops, I walked into the girl's locker room, and I'm a man. Looks like I got the wrong end of the stick. Or did I?"
(Cue funky bass riff)

Most say it came from ...
As advanced as their sewage systems were, the Romans still had not arrived at the toilet paper stage. In their public toilets, the pooper would rely on a sponge or cloth that was attached to a stick which rested within a bowl that contained a mixture of two-parts salt water and three-parts nightmares.

After a person had finished discussing the days events with their constituents, all while becoming a few pounds lighter, they would request the sponged stick to be passed along to them. If they weren't concentrating on the task, they would end up grabbing the end of the stick that was covered in the shit of 50 other guys. This was considered grabbing the "wrong end of the stick." Yeah, no shit.

So is that true?
This is another idiom whose history is contentious, but as a comedy website you'll have to work hard to talk us out of this one, since it radically changes the classic idea of a Roman bathhouse orgy from a swinging good time to the largest collection of unintentional Dirty Sanchez's ever.

There is, though, another origin that's widely held to be the true one. The origin pertains to walking sticks and accidentally grabbing the dirty, non-handled end, the "wrong end." OK, maybe. But ask yourself: If you somehow had a stick that was clotted with dirt on one end, and with the turds of a dozen Romans on the other, which would truly be the "wrong" end?

Exactly.

#3. "As Pleased as Punch"

Now Means:
To be very happy. As in, "Uncle Bernie is pleased as punch now that he has his cocaine."

Most say it came from ...
Apparently the phrase spawned from an English puppet show that goes all the way back to the 1600s (Punch and Judy) which was written by a chemically imbalanced sociopath, or a 17th century Eli Roth. No two performances of the show were totally alike, but they all usually involved the same events:

1. Punch kills his infant child
2. Punch punches Judy until she dies
3. Punch goes to prison and escapes using a golden key (strangely, he doesn't kill the prison)
4. He then kills doctors, lawyers and a hangman
5. He kills Death, as in, the Grim Reaper
6. Then it all ends spectacularly as he kills the fucking Devil.

So, how does "Pleased as punch" come out of a killing spree perpetuated by a puppet? Well, Punch got a raging murder-boner off it all. That is to say that "Punch" was "Pleased" with killing his wife and baby among other things (read: he was the fucking Devil).

So is that true?
We here at Cracked are pleased as punch (see what we did there?) to inform you that this is, in fact, true. Punch and Judy is generally a summertime show put on for English children who have yet to learn the subtle differences between edutainment and infanticide.

#2. "Dead Ringer"

Now Means:
An exact duplicate. As in, "That stripper's crotch is a dead ringer for your mom's."

Most say it came from ...
This origin holds that a "Dead Ringer" was a person that was prematurely buried and is supplied with a rope attached to a bell with which to draw attention to the not-so-dead guy in the totally-for-dead-people box.

Through some research we found that such a practice never actually existed, although there were instances of people being buried alive and there is actually a patent held for such a life saving device.

So why in the world would that term come to mean "exact duplicate?" Probably because it's bullshit.

So is that true?
No, sadly, it has to do with race horses.

Towards the end of the 19th century, race horse owners began to devise ways to fool bookies who would try to scope out the horses before a race. The trick was you brought two similar horses, one fast and one slow. The owners would run the slower horse around for all to see, thus driving up the odds against it. They have a friend place some bets, then at race time, whip out the fast horse.

So it was a "ringer" (slang for an illicit competitor in a sports event) and "dead" in that was dead-on, or identical.

Man, that's a bigger letdown than the short hairs thing. How about if we say the "dead ringer" horse was also a zombie?

#1. "Nitty-Gritty"

Now Means:
The heart of the matter. As in, "Let's get down to the nitty-gritty, home skillet."

Most say it came from ...
Nitty-Gritty has two popular origins, both of which may make you feel like a sack of shit for ever using the term.

The first popular belief holds that the term originated from British slave ships and references the loose debris that would fill the bottom of these ships. Some go as far as to say that the term actually referenced the slaves themselves.

A second origin pertains to, yep, you guessed it, pubic lice (nit) and dried fecal reminisce on ass hair (grit).

Ew.

So is that true?
Once more, no one can say which is true, if either of them. But, whether it's the tiny bugs on your tallywhacker or the horrors of slave ships, either way we really never want to hear grandma use it again.

Nitty-gritty commonly gets paired with "picnic" (which was said to have been a reference to lynching) in the realm of seemingly benign words that have full-blown (and probably incorrect) racist origins. Both racially charged stories are completely unfounded and have no concrete histories other then the folk tales that get passed down from screaming Grand Wizard to frightened onlooker.

Yes kids, language is awesome.

If you liked that, you'll probably enjoy our look at 9 Words That Don't Mean What You Think. Or, head over to the blog and learn a thing or two about the horrifying origins of comedy. Then, check out some good old fashioned pool hustling (a phrase which got its origin from a 1961 Paul Newman film).

Recommended For Your Pleasure

To turn on reply notifications, click here

248 Comments

The Cracked Podcast

Choosing to "Like" Cracked has no side effects, so what's the worst that could happen?

The Weekly Hit List

Sit back... Relax... We'll do all the work.
Get a weekly update on the best at Cracked. Subscribe now!