5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins

It's fascinating to trace the origins of everyday phrases back and find out just how many of them were not only slang, but terms that referenced unspeakable horror.
5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins

Everybody can think of a recent slang term they wish had never been added to the language. (Selfie? On fleek? Totes?) The reality though is that almost all language started from that sort of thing. Over time, the original meaning gets forgotten, along with any stigma.

That's why it's fascinating to trace the origins of everyday phrases back and find out just how many of them were not only slang, but terms that referenced unspeakable horror. What do we mean? Well ...

A "Cakewalk" Was A Cruel Slave Ritual

Kerry Mills

How People Use It:

An easy or simple task, a battle against an enemy that won't put up much resistance. Alternately, "not a cakewalk" means you're probably going to have to fight a Predator or 16 before your mission is accomplished.

"Most people think dissolving a body in acid is horrible and gruesome, but for Brian, it's a cakewalk."

Ivan Bliznetsov/E+/Getty Images

Plus, he has his Breaking Bad Halloween costume all set. Double cakewalk!

What It Originally Meant:

A sadistic old-timey dancing game for slaves.

Cakewalks were essentially dance-offs for a chance of winning, yes, a cake. While that sounds delightful, the reality was ... less joyful than its name would imply. That's because it was a party game for slaves -- and they didn't really have a choice in the matter.

Library of Congress

And you complain when your company has mandatory trust fall exercises.

Cakewalk ceremonies were held on slave plantations. The dancers were slaves, who used the opportunity to mock the mannerisms of the aristocratic Southern fuckers who owned them. They'd wear flamboyant costumes and exaggerate the typical dancing moves of Southern gentlefolk, their master and his slavery-loving friends in particular.

Library of Congress

"Whiteface" remains controversial to this day.

Theoretically, that might have been a pretty decent way for the slaves to vent some steam over their unfortunate situation. However, the cakewalk came with a catch: The person doing the judging was the slaves' master. So instead of the slaves having some fun behind their owner's back, cakewalks were basically a sadistic game of sanctioned mockery that carried the risk of turning into Joe Pesci's "I'm funny how?" scene from Goodfellas at any given moment. A cakewalk was essentially a roast, except the person being roasted could have anyone on the dais flogged for the rest of their lives whenever he wanted.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Or literally roasted.

When America came to its senses and reluctantly gave up the slavery thing, the dance endured and slowly started evolving. It became a staple of minstrel shows where it went full throttle racist; instead of showing the slaves as mocking whites, the performance now portrayed them as desperately trying (and ultimately failing) to emulate civilized white culture.

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A. Blomberg

Pictured: Civilized white culture

Eventually, the universe just sort of gave up on cakewalk and fused it (and the accompanying music) into ragtime culture. However, the term "cakewalk" persevered, and eventually came to associate with easiness, thanks to the seeming ease with which some dancers performed the moves. It's not the only cake metaphor the dance ceremony gave us, either; the couple that impressed the judge the most would "take the cake." Hell, if the people at Smithsonian Magazine are any judge, the term "piece of cake" may well also derive from here.

"Grasping At Straws" Refers To Someone In The Process Of Drowning

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
Gary John Norman/The Image Bank/Getty Images

How People Use It:

To make a futile attempt at something.

"Brian was really grasping at straws when he told police his blood-stained clothes were part of a performance art piece."

SBG 6sim
TEK IMAGE/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Earlier, he had been grasping at throats.

What It Originally Meant:

To spastically flail at whatever bullshit you can reach because you're about to fucking drown.

The first recorded use of this phrase goes way back to 1534. It was coined by the famous English philosopher-lawyer Sir Thomas More in his A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, and its original form was:

Lyke a man that in peril of drowning catcheth whatsoever cometh next to hand ... be it never so simple a sticke.

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
Naftali Hilger/arabianEye/Getty

"And the final sticke shall breaketh his camel's backe."

The straws are a stick here, and the delivery is decidedly Shakespearean, but the sentiment is viciously clear: A drowning man is so desperate that he'll reach for absolutely anything, even if he knows it can't possibly save him. If you think that's a pretty bleak worldview, it should probably be mentioned that More was rotting away in the Tower of London while writing these lines, and therefore probably not the happiest of campers.

Prison bitterness or not, something in More's prison metaphor about human desperation as an ungraceful "holy shit, I'm dying and I'd very much like to not do that" survival instinct apparently resonated with his peers. Five decades down the line, a writer named John Prime resurrected the phrase in his Fruitful and Brief Discourse with the now-familiar straws replacing the stick, and a classic was born.

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
Philip and Karen Smith/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Later, the invention of the drinking straw confused everything.

Despite later authors' experimentation with other equally useless lifesavers like thorns and reeds, the phrase slowly morphed from the convoluted original into "a drowning man will grasp at straws" and then into the modern "grasping at straws." And while the compact form does lose a lot on the imminent death front, it easily takes home the gold in the "phrases that sound like giving a handjob to a scarecrow" Olympics.

A "Loophole" Was What Medieval Archers Used To Sneakily Kill You

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
VisitBritain/Britain on View/Britain On View/Getty

How People Use It:

An ambiguity in a rule or law that can be exploited.

"The police thought they finally had Brian when they found him in possession of all those severed heads, but his lawyers found a loophole."

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
Robert Daly/Caiaimage/Getty Images

"How could he have hacked those heads when he was busy burning helping that orphanage?"

What It Originally Meant:

A tiny window for murdering people with arrows. If you've ever been to an old European castle, seen one on TV, or are an immortal crusader who is reading this right now (in which case, hi!), then you've probably seen these narrow slits in the walls:

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
Philip Halling

"'Tis tighter than thy mother's!" -- Shakespeare, probably.

That, friend, is the original loophole, aka arrow slit, and it was used exclusively for mayhem. Much like the modern day figurative loopholes, they allowed a person to exploit an opening. Only, these literal openings allowed the guards inside the castle to rain arrows down on would-be besiegers (or, presumably, discreetly pee on unsuspecting people below). The slits, while narrow on the outside, become wider on the inside to allow an archer to fire from multiple angles while risking little exposure themselves. Later on, a horizontal slit was added for crossbows, which also conveniently made the slits shape of a cross for a +15 Religion Bonus for every arrow.


All projectiles turned to holy water arrows. And that's why there are no vampires left.

Eventually, these openings designed solely to strike your opponent when they least expect it took on a metaphorical meaning, people forgot what the "loop" part of the word is about (it's just an obsolete 16th century word that described a gap in a castle wall), and the rest is legal history.

Speaking of which ...

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins

"Justice Is Blind" Was A Visual Joke At The Justice System's Expense

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
Fry Design Ltd/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

How People Use It:

Justice is impartial and does not play favorites.

"It shouldn't matter what race I am, dammit! Haven't you heard the saying 'justice is blind?'"

"Brian, you're white. And you've killed 29 people."

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
Jeff Fusco/Getty Images News/Getty Images

"That you KNOW of."

What It Originally Meant:

Justice is corrupt and ineffective to the point of blindness.

Hey, you know those people who keep using the whole justice-is-blind thing as a cheap (if accurate) jab at the expense of the dysfunctional justice system? Cringeworthy as their puns may seem, they're actually the OGs, here. You're probably familiar with the sword-and-scales woman with the blindfold, who acts as a symbol of justice:

Handout/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Note that correct and effective use of both tools typically requires vision.

The idea is that justice wears a blindfold in order to judge in all fairness -- that way, she doesn't see race, wealth, or other personal traits that might affect her judgment. Right?

Nope! Lady Justice totally started out with full vision, based on the image of Themis, the Greek Titaness of Law:

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
AP/The Economist

Books: another item easier to use with eyes.

The blindfold first appeared in the 15th century, and was a total parody: It was used by artists to mock a justice system that was busying itself with massively important stuff like drowning witches and sentencing roosters to death for laying eggs. One of the earliest depictions of the blind Lady Justice features a jester blindfolding her in a way that clearly suggests that justice is a goddamn dipshit.

Sebastian Brant

A kinky dipshit.

Humanity being what it is, this parody happened to look cool enough that it eventually bled into serious depictions of justice and turned the blindfold into its trademark eyewear. Then we just retconned the meaning so that it made sense again.

"Last-Ditch Effort" Was A Fight Involving A Doomed Army

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
Handout/Getty Images News/Getty Images

How People Use It:

A final attempt at getting something done.

"As a last-ditch effort to capture Brian, they decided to just destroy the entire city."

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

How could they have known the radiation would just make him stronger?

What It Originally Meant:

To probably die in said attempt.

The origin of the expression has been attributed to William III, a 17th century king of Ireland and Great Britain, who replied to the threat of invading French with this badass quote:

"There is one certain means by which I can be sure never to see my country's ruin: I will die in the last ditch."

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
Godfrey Kneller

This may or may not also be the origin of the phrase "Dutch courage."

William didn't just pull the phrase out of his ass, though. Last-ditch efforts were a tried and tested defensive tactic in medieval sieges -- one that notoriously sucked festering rat ass for everyone involved. Here's how it worked: When a garrison was about to fail, a particularly enterprising group of defenders would construct fortifications and ditches behind the soon-to-be-breached walls, one after another. This allowed them to gradually fall back under pressure, while inflicting massive casualties on the enemy as they struggled over the debris and onto the waiting weapons of the defenders.

5 Things You Say Often With Horrible Historical Origins
Peter Dunn/English Heritage

This proved successful in the 1216 siege of Dover Castle and the 3019 siege of Minas Tirith.

This worked pretty well, right up until artillery became advanced enough to wreck the defenders' positions without sending the attacking forces to die in the ditches. However, if the attackers were strong enough to drive the defender all the way back to the last one of these ditches, the defenders were stuck in the last one with no way to go, and thus shit out of luck. They'd have to fight, and they'd almost certainly die. A last-ditch effort, in its truest sense, means simply that surrender isn't an option. And that, more than likely, the "ditch" in the saying is about to be full of mutilated human remains.

Yo, we're not finished dropping linguistic bombs all over your brain matter just yet. Be sure to check out 33 Useful Words The English Language Needs To Add and 8 Racist Words You Use Every Day.

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