Jeanette Sekan
Jeanette Sekan
By Jeanette Sekan
The Cody (Wyo.) Enterprise
HCP columnist


Do you ever think about phrases or sayings we use or hear every day?

Do you ever stop to think about why we have continued the tradition and where they originated?

Since I often write about words, these things pop into my mind periodically. It happened again.

I was listening to a book recently where a few well worn, but apt, phrases were included in the story. Some of the phrases were things I have used and seem to be part of our every day vernacular. But, do we know why?

So, I thought I’d look into a few of the ones used in this particular book and see if my assumptions or memory matched the facts.

Beyond the Pale: I think I’ve used this in a column or two. I’ve used it to describe something that is usually outside agreed standards of decency or unacceptable in polite society. This is a common usage of the phrase. A paling fence or enclosed area became known as the home or region that was safe. Beyond the pale was outside the area known as home. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia. Pales became areas enforced in other European countries for political reasons.

Helter-skelter: This phrase has evolved. When I use it, I’m referring to chaos, disorder, a mess. That may be the accepted colloquial definition. It also is a song by the Beatles; an English fairground attraction; the name of a book about the Charles Manson family (since he used it as part of his various predictions). It was used by Shakespeare in “Henry IV” and Thomas Nashe in “Four letters confuted” in 1592. It’s a bit comforting to realize something has withstood the ages.

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse:” Thank you Shakespeare for “Richard III.” When we hear or use this phrase we are usually willing to trade something of value for something we desperately want or need. Usually we are speaking in jest or with an ironic bent. I vaguely remember this phrase also being used in English class when discussing iambic pentameter.

“Worth one’s salt:” It’s amazing how many times I hear or read this. It mean’s effective or deserving one’s pay. Salary is from the Latin “salarium” meaning salt. Salt was the primary method of food preservation before refrigeration and canning. It is also essential for human life. It’s quite a compliment to be considered worth one’s salt.

“Truth is stranger than fiction:” For the past few years, this phrase has been used in a variety of venues. Some of the things we have witnessed are still hard to believe. Along with “you can’t make this stuff up,” truth being stranger than fiction has been our life. Some attribute this to Lord Byron and his poem “Don Juan” from 1823.

It’s enjoyable to be reminded about the wonders of our language and the meanings of so many things that we use and share with commonality. Words and phrases have a power all their own. It’s good to stop and think about them, and not take them for granted all the time.