5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins


Words and phrases are fairly straightforward things. Once upon a time, someone looked at an elephant and decided to call it an elephant, because what the hell else would you call an elephant? But as we've previously noted, language often takes some pretty bizarre turns on the way to its modern usage, and sometimes a seemingly innocent phrase is the result of one supremely fucked-up past.

"The Seven-Year Itch"

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins

What It Means Now:

Apparently, after seven years of marriage, the average man gets an itch in his junk that makes him want to go out, find a loose woman, and acquire himself a less metaphorical itch in his junk. This overwhelming urge to cheat after seven years of wedded bliss is referred to as the "seven-year itch" and was made popular by George Axelrod's 1952 comedic play of the same name. Said play was eventually adapted into the 1955 film starring Marilyn Monroe and panties, or at least that's the only part we remember.

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins

Forgive us. We've been boringly married for over half a decade.

But It Used to Mean ...

Imagine that underneath her billowing white skirt is this:

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins
Sven Teschke

Actually, that's a hand. The crotch is thrice as scary.

That, you suddenly lunchless ladies and gentlemen, is the original seven-year itch. The red, inflamed rash is an extremely contagious infection called scabies, and it's caused by evil little mites that burrow deep into the skin and cause an allergic reaction. Before modern medicine, scabies was known to plague those infected with it for damn near a decade -- and treatments never really prevented reinfection. So they called it "the seven-year itch" because "the infinite itch" provoked a few too many suicides upon diagnosis.

That means it wasn't an itch that happened every seven years; it was an itch that lasted seven years.

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins

Because when you first see yourself with it, you break your mirror.

The most disturbing part? Scabies is classified by the World Health Organization as a water-based disease that's spread most easily through prolonged skin-to-skin contact. And now it's time for the reader participation portion of our article: Tell us, just what wet activity with prolonged skin contact might have caused the meaning of the seven-year itch to change from "scabies" to "cheating on your wife"?

Well, we guess "Marilyn Monroe" may still be technically correct.

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins
20th Century Fox

"Ahhh, sweet, temporary relief!"

"Blue Blood"

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins

What It Means Now:

"Blue blood" refers to someone possessing a high class or status. It has a history of royal connotations, but the term is common even in places without kings and queens -- a "blue-blooded American" sounds like the epic fusion of patriotism and hypothermia, but actually refers to a person who was born holding a silver spoon in one hand and a Free Reality Show When You Come of Age card in the other.

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins

To stay young, they inject blue jewels. Blood diamonds, mostly.

But It Used to Mean ...

This phrase manages the amazing feat of being simultaneously wrong, racist, and religiously intolerant. It's the hat trick of total dickitry. "Blue blood" came from the Spanish term "sangre azul" (dibs on the metal band name), and it hails from a time when people were under the impression that blood that had not yet been spilled via some medieval torture device was a Smurfy shade of blue. In 15th century Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile realized that there were some Muslims and Jews coexisting peacefully with Christians in Southern Spain and decided they were having none of that shit.

Sebastiano del Piombo

They learned all this from Columbus, who discovered the Jews.

Once they'd conquered their southerly neighbors, the Spanish rulers kindly told the Muslims and Jews to either convert to Christianity or GTFO. Actually, both would be preferable. But when other people annoyingly continued to exist in their general area, the Spaniards faced a new problem: Now that the heathens had been forcibly converted, how could they, the inherently superior Spanish, prove that they were still inherently superior?

So the Castilians resorted to bragging about how pure their Christian lineage was, untainted by Jewish or Muslim blood. Spanish Christians were fairer than their reluctant converts, many of whom were of North African descent. Logic clearly dictated that, because white people could see their apparently blue veins through their skin, having blue veins was awesome.

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins

And "blue-blooded" sounded more regal than "thin-skinned" or "pasty."

The term eventually made its way to the British, who realized they had a lock on this pasty transparent skin shit and laid claim to the phrase. Because America is basically Britain's rebellious mulleted child, the phrase jumped the pond and wound up an American political keyword.

"Mumbo Jumbo"

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins

What It Means Now:

"Mumbo jumbo" is religious nonsense used to fool the gullible masses, or the keyword-laden claptrap constantly tossed out by whichever presidential candidate you're not personally supporting (you know, that guy), or maybe it's the legalese spewed by a shady defense attorney in order to get his clearly guilty client off scot-free. In short, it's the art of bullshitting for nefarious purposes.

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins
White House

At the presidential level, this can even manifest as Coco Jamboo.

But It Used to Mean ...

Pretty much the same thing, only it was part of an African ritual to oppress, terrify, and beat women into submission. So ... well, a little different, we guess. European explorers reported on the horrifying sexism they found within a particular tribe they encountered near Senegal, which is really saying something, since there is almost nothing that an 18th century white European male found sexist.

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins
William Hogarth

The word didn't even exist till like the '60s.

In the 1730s, Francis Moore encountered the Mandingo tribe. Moore stated that the male Mandingos would dress "in a long Coat made of the Bark of Trees ... This is a Thing invented by the men to keep their Wives in awe." Apparently the women were taught to believe that this poor excuse for Ent cosplay was a god named Mumbo Jumbo. While this all sounds frankly ridiculous, it actually had serious consequences. Mumbo Jumbo settled disputes between the men and the women of the tribe, and since he was always played by a man, he didn't have much incentive to side with the ladies.

Mumbo Jumbo could pass sentences of severe beatings, imprisonment, or even death for little more than the mortal crime of having a vagina. Throughout the year, all men over the age of 16 took turns dressing up as this "god" and speaking in scary, nonsense gibberish. Due to a surplus in creativity, this cant language was also referred to as "Mumbo Jumbo." The women either didn't understand it or had to pretend like they didn't because, once again, their husbands would be totally at liberty to murder the shit out of them so long as Mumbo Jumbo said it was OK (spoiler: Mumbo Jumbo always said it was OK).

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins
NY Public Library

Trust him. He carries the omniscient stick.

Now, if that was inexplicably accurate anthropological reporting on African culture from an 18th century Englishman or a series of misunderstandings, racist hyperbole, and fabrication -- that's up to history to decide. We're just relaying Moore's report. Whether you believe him or not, it doesn't change that the phrase as we know it today originally referred to a man pretending to have religious affiliations and using a bunch of gibberish to harm the opposite sex.

Fitting, then, that it applies to so many televangelists today.

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins


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What It Means Now:

The guideline at the bottom of a printing press signifying that any article submitted past a certain date won't be printed (and is therefore "dead") has been around for at least a century. Although the phrase became widely known due to its association with the press in the 20th century, its history is quite a bit older.

DURN REOH shinoD e ar9Lae om mi
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The "press" existed in the second millennium. It sent words on wood to people's homes.

But It Used to Mean ...

In 1864, the Civil War had three years under its belt, so there were loads of soldiers in POW camps on both sides. And if you were unlucky enough to be one of the 45,000 Union soldiers stuck in the Andersonville Prison, you would have learned the meaning of "deadline" in a terrifyingly literal fashion. To keep prisoners from escaping, a 17-foot-tall fence was built around the perimeter of the prison, with guards set in sentry posts along the length of it. And just to make extra sure everyone starved to death in an orderly fashion within the designated starving cage, a "deadline" was established 12 feet from the inside of the fence. This invisible boundary and everything beyond was off-limits to prisoners, and anyone looking to test this rule was immediately shot by the guards.

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins
Library of Congress

They shoulda just put up another damn fence, 12 feet in.

So ... how is that different from modern prisons? Harsher, maybe, but still -- you go for the fence, you get put down. That hasn't changed. Here's Private James Anderson, a Confederate soldier, reporting on the problem with deadlines:

"Now, we have many thoughtless boys here who think the killing of a Yankee will make them great men. As a consequence, every day or two there are prisoners shot."

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins
Sidney E. King

Those boys could have killed all the Yankees they wanted on the battlefield, but war is scary.

Prisoners were shot for deadline-related infractions every day or two. And sure, some of them were probably purposely pushing the boundaries, but plenty of them were behaving perfectly innocently when some jerkwad with a rifle decided he wanted to make a name for himself. The guards could simply claim that the victim was over the deadline, or, hey, just drag the body over it, and be pardoned without arrest or punishment. It was a Get Out of Jail card good for unlimited free murders.

Wait, so a looming "deadline" always meant false reports and eager young men jumping the gun? No wonder journalists appropriated it.


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Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

What It Means Now:

This thing.

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins
Zachi Evenor 

It's big, and it crawls, and it pushes stuff.

We, uh ... we don't have a clever write-up to explain bulldozers to you. If you are unfamiliar, perhaps see the dissertations of one Mr. Tonka.

But It Used to Mean ...

Originally "bulldozer" was a term applied to people -- specifically, people who used intimidation, fear, and violence to further their political agenda at the expense of whatever was standing in their way. And by "whatever was standing in their way," we mostly mean "black people."

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins
Harper's Weekly

Prejudice: secretly responsible for half the English language.

Forgive us for the controversial statement, but in the post-Civil War Deep South, it may have been advantageous to be a bearded white dude. The Reconstruction era saw scads of the aforementioned beardos who had just lost a war, their slaves, and a lot of their land in one fell swoop. No surprise, then, that the South became solidly Democratic.*

*Important note: "Democrat" didn't always mean "liberal Starbucks-dweller who won't get off their MacBook."

If there was one thing that might prevent the Democrats from staying in power, though, it was the influx of newly freed black citizens who were suddenly able to vote in elections. The key word here being "able." Around 1876, some white dudes in Louisiana figured out a simple way to keep black people from voting. What tool could possibly be so persuasive, you ask? Rallying speeches? Negative campaign ads? Naive presidential promises? None of the above: Armed vigilantes would go out at night and lash potential Republican voters (read: black folks) with a bullwhip. Flogging the ever-loving hell out of someone with a bullwhip was referred to as "giving them a dose of the bull," while the people who administered said lashes were called "bulldozers."

5 Innocent Phrases With Surprisingly Dark Origins

And yes, the whips were made from dicks. Make of that what you will.

At some point Democrats and Republicans alike began to use the term "bulldozer" to refer to a corrupt politician or anyone "willing to stuff a ballot-box or shoot a n****r, or, for that matter, a white man, in order to get an office." Hey, nobody said a political party is one of those fun ones with dancing and coed Twister. The cops are getting called and somebody is winding up with a scar and a story after this hoedown.

Brenna Crotty is the editorial coordinator for CALYX Journal. She blogs about Doctor Who and other nerdy TV shows at NerdyTVRants.com and would totally accept scabies if it came from David Tennant.

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Related Reading: Speaking of phrases with dark origins, did you know Mussolini didn't actually make the trains run on time? And if you're the kind of person who says "amazeballs" regularly, the world probably wants you dead. For a look at all the phrases you won't believe Shakespeare invented, click here.

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