Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: In the King James Bible, man is said to be made in the “Spit and image of God.” In the Catholic version it is translated as the “image and likeness of God.” As a girl can be described as “the spitting image of her grandfather,” what does spit describe? -George Lillis

I offer two possible explanations for the origin of the expression the spitting image, which usually refers to a father and his son. One theory maintains that the spitting image derives from “the spirit and image” (the inner and outer likeness) and that in Renaissance English and southern U.S. speech spirit became spi’it, with the r dropped and spit when the second r was jettisoned. A second hypothesis proposes that spitting really means what it says and that the spitting image carries the notion of the offspring’s being “identical even down to the spit” of the parent or actually spat out by the parent.

I lean toward the second theory, that the metaphor is truly salivary. In French, for example, the expression is C’est son pere tout crache. (“He is his father all spat out.”) And here’s an English example from way back in 1400: “like as one as if he has been spit out of his mouth.” Great expectorations!


DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: I often hear people saying “Let’s just cut to the chase.” What in the world is that? I thought that expression was originally “cut through the chaff” (chaff referring to the residue left from threshing of wheat). Did cut to the chase evolve in reference to some chase scene from a movie and is in fact asking the person to cut the details of the plot and get to the action? –Mary Rose

Your movie theory is the right one. Cut to the chase is unquestionably a reference to chase scenes in action movies. The literal use — as a director’s instruction to go to a chase scene — is almost a century old. A 1929 screenplay, for example, includes “Jannings escapes. Cut to chase.” It’s but a short leap from “enough of the kissy-kissy scene already; let’s get to the car chase” to a more figurative use: “Get with it. Get to the point.” That extended meaning is fairly recent, dating from only the early 1980s.


DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: What is the background of pan out as in “my good ideas didn’t pan out”?-John Olivier

The expression, which means “to turn out well,” derives from the act of extracting gold out of gravel in a pan.

On the other hand, the cliché a flash in the pan has nothing to do with the way prospectors pan rivers for gold. In truth, a flash in the pan refers to the occasional misfiring of the old flintlock muskets when the flash of the primer in the pan of the rifle failed to ignite the explosion of the charge. It is estimated that such misfirings ran as high as 15 percent, leading a flash in the pan to mean “an intense but short-lived success or a person who fails to live up to his or her early promise.”


DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: Since this is a Navy town, we should all know that “three sheets to the wind” means “very drunk.” But why? –Gloria Reams

For sailors, sheets refer to the lines attached to the lower corner of a sail. When all three sheets of an old sailing vessel were allowed to run free, they were said to be “in the wind,” and the ship would lurch and stagger like a person inebriated. That’s why we call an unsteady state of drunkenness three sheets to the wind.


DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: What is the origin of the expression in like Flynn, and who was Flynn? -Julie Van Houton

This rhyming phrase is often attributed, with sexual overtones, to movie star and infamous womanizer Errol Flynn, but it more likely refers to Ed Flynn, a New York political boss. The Democratic candidates he backed during Franklin Roosevelt’s administrations almost automatically were elected to office.


DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: I’m trying to find info on the origin of the phrase to go South, as in “Things began to go South after the company chose an idiot as its CEO.” Can you help? -Andy Edgar 

Because south is at the bottom of most maps, going south, which originated as U.S. slang in the 1940s, means “to deteriorate, to go downhill.”