5 Totally Harmless Phrases (Are Secretly Offensive Jokes)
Languages are like Pokemon: The more we use them, the more they evolve until we can't even recall the bizarre little things they started out as. Do you know the kinds of cesspools your words were hanging out in before they got into your mouth? We do, and as we've told you before, their backstories tend to be awful as balls.
"Bang For Your Buck" Used To Be A Cute Slogan For Total Annihilation
If we had to venture a guess about the origin of "bang for your buck," we'd assume it referred to a prostitute who offered exceptional value.
But It Came From ...
All-out nuclear warfare, possibly by way of Pepsi.
In 1953, the Eisenhower administration had a bit of a problem divorcing the fiscal conservatism of the Republican Party from the Cold War necessity of, well ... eternal war. Their solution was the New Look, a policy of using nuclear weapons in any battle larger than a "brushfire conflict." This strategy would replace expensive soldiers with cheaper atom bombs. Thus, the president -- and the American people -- would get more "bang" for their tax "bucks."
Every American had to be prepared to survive post-Belarus' diplomat cutting in front of theirs at the UN catering line.
Although Charles Erwin Wilson, the Secretary of Defense at the time, is commonly associated with popularizing the phrase and coining it in the military context, he may not have come up with it himself. Some have pointed out that it bears striking similarity to the 1950s Pepsi slogan "more bounce to the ounce."
So it's only appropriate that soda help pay your rent in the nuclear wasteland.
It's possible that Wilson took a pop culture cue from the Pepsi ads and adapted their slogan for rampant nuclear warfare. Kind of like how DARPA adapted Nike's "Just Do It" phrase to advocate for chemical warfare. Oh wait, that last bit never happened, because the government stealing a commercial slogan to plug weapons of mass destruction would be fucking insane, wouldn't it?!
"Sold Down The River" Comes From The Slave Trade
Your office nemesis, Gary from accounting, went ahead and took all the credit for that big project you worked on together. He sure sold you down the river, didn't he? Yes, truly the worst thing ever associated with that phrase is Gary, with his suspenders and his perfect teeth and his family which actually loves him. The jerk.
But It Came From ...
The river being referred to is either the Mississippi or Ohio, and what are being very literally sold down that river are slaves. Getting sold "down the river" wasn't a pretty fate, even for them. They weren't merely going from one plantation to a different one; chances were they'd be en route to the southern parts of Mississippi, which generally had way worse conditions.
Which, to be fair, is like choosing between anal warts and gangrene dick, but still.
The earliest known written occurrence of the phrase dates back to 1837 in the Ohio Repository, and the practice of selling slaves down the Mississippi is referenced in Uncle Tom's Cabin. It wasn't until the early 20th Century that people started using "sold down the river" more colloquially. "Hey, you know that awful fucking thing our ancestors did? You know, the thing where they took human beings away from their families and friends and sent them to the shittiest parts of the country to work themselves to death? Let's use that phrase to talk about the time fucking Gary cleaned out the break room fridge and threw away our leftovers without asking. Truly, an atrocity worthy of the term."
Related: Oops, Hamilton Did Own Slaves
"Grandfathering" Was A Way To Exclude African Americans From Voting
A "grandfather clause," or being "grandfathered into" something, means that a new law or rule has been passed, but some people still get to abide by the old rules by virtue of having been around for a while. It's like how the newbies at the go-kart track aren't allowed to bring lances, but you still can, because you've been doing it the whole time, and also because the attendant is terrified of you.
But It Came From ...
Following the end of slavery, African American men were finally given the right to vote, but not every state was so keen to extend these liberties. Since flat-out forbidding them from voting was now illegal, many states tried to circumvent the law by coming up with a bunch of new rules to exclude black voters. Mandatory literacy tests and constitutional quizzes were instituted, which most African Americans at the time probably couldn't pass -- but not strictly because of their skin tone, see, so it wasn't technically racist.
America's future depended on people passing the 1800s equivalent of the shitty "IQ test" your aunt shares on Facebook.
The plan had one Achilles' heel, though: A lot of uneducated white folks couldn't pass these tests either. So to get around that, the states came up with the so-called grandfather clauses. If someone had the right to right to vote before African Americans could do so, then they could vote without having to pass an additional test. They also decided that if your descendants could vote, then you still had the right as well, because stacking odds is fun -- like a game of racist Jenga.
"Hey, didn't my daddy flog your daddy? Bad news about that Winfield Hancock vote of yours, then."
"Pipe Dreams" Refers To Opium Hallucinations
That giant battle mech you're one day going to weld out of spare ducts and stolen copper wire? That's a total pipe dream, and your Homeowner's Association will never truly know the word "vengeance."
But It Came From ...
Opiate-based commerce was important to Victorian England's economy. Women with menstrual problems, or who were prone to "hysteria" or fainting fits, were given laudanum treatments. Children were prescribed opiates so that they might be seen but seldom heard. You could pop down to the corner chemist and pick up some cocaine or arsenic. You could easily visit an opium den with the likes of Lewis Carroll and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, grab a pipe and have yourself some vivid hallucinations. These were referred to as "pipe dreams."
Like the kind that turned Alice In Wonderland from "new math sucks and here's why" into, well, Alice In Wonderland.
Over time, as opium use went from "fun from the whole family" to "emotionally-scarring Requiem For A Dream-style life destruction," the phrase "pipe dreams" went from "that hilarious stuff I see on weekends" to "a thing that will never, ever happen." So perhaps you'd best give in to the HOA demands and stop flying the Jolly Roger from your balcony.
"The Other Side Of The Tracks" Is All About Segregation
"The other side of the tracks" refers to the "bad" part of town. You don't want to go there. That's where the poor people live, where the crimes are committed, where the break dancing contests are held.
But It Came From ...
Physical obstacles for the poor, built right into the design of our cities.
Railroads, highways, and other "historically impassable avenues" tend to reduce foot traffic to and from useful things like schools, hospitals, and parks. Which sucks for those unfortunately born on the wrong side of said avenues -- or dare we say, "the wrong side of the tracks." This segregation used to be done deliberately, though it's since simply become a matter of habit.
Examples! Check out the lines of segregation in Hartford, Connecticut:
Then there's Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
Here's Kansas City, Missouri:
And of course, everyone's favorite deadbeat uncle of a town, Detroit, Michigan:
Clarence lives north of the tracks, but only because Clarence's parents have a real good marriage.
The "other side of the tracks" wasn't always a metaphorical term for the neighborhood with the best rib joints. It was a conscious act of segregation that the powers that be have both known about and been kind of ashamed of for a while. The Fair Housing Act has been trying eliminate this bullshit since way back in 1968. But the federal government didn't truly double down on it until 2015, when they finally made a concerted effort to integrate the nation's divided cities. So expect the legacy of the racist railroad-based practice to be fully eliminated sometime after we invent the hover car and our kids have to ask what "train tracks" were in the first place.
Jacopo is the author of License To Quill and The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy, which you must own. Mike Bedard is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles. Make him look more popular than he really is by following him on Twitter. Jamie Wyman is an author, freelance editor, and High Priestess of the Pajama Cult. Follow her chai-soaked profanity on Twitter, read her fiction, and visit her blog at House Pajamazon.
For more word origins you'll wish you didn't know, check out 9 Words You've Used Today With Bizarre Criminal Origins and 8 Racist Words You Use Every Day.
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