Saturday, March 10, 2001

Varied origins

RECENTLY, the micro light aircraft of the Air Force evoked the comment, ‘flying on a wing and a prayer’. The expression harks back to World War I, when airplanes were still a novelty and untested in war. The expression was first used when an American pilot came in with a badly damaged wing. His fellow pilots and technical team were amazed that he had not crashed. He replied that he was praying all the way in. Another pilot then said, "A wing and a prayer brought you back." The spontaneous expression became a permanent description of any mission that has faint chances of success.

In times of trouble, pilots can always pass the buck and blame other factors. Passing the buck as an expression originated from the very simple practice of using a marker called a buck in card games. The player who was the dealer kept the marker or buck with him. When it was the next player’s turn to deal, the ‘buck’ was ‘passed’ on along with the responsibility of dealing the cards. This marker, the buck, gave its name to the buck slip, which was the routing slip in offices before the days of computers. One memo was typed along with a carbon copy, then the copy was passed around to the people listed on the buck slip. Each person signed next to his name on the buck slip and passed the memo on to the next person on the buck slip. A tactic used to delay or delegate something was to pass the memo onto the next person, without signing the buck slip; hence, literally passing the buck. Incidentally, Harry Truman made the expression popular by placing a placard on his desk which read ‘the buck stops here’.

Words around the house
February 17, 2001
Words around the house
February 3, 2001
Medical terms
January 20, 2001
Painting the town red
January 6, 2001
Expressions from seas
December 23, 2000
Time capsule of words
December 16, 2000
New words
December 2, 2000
Words from myths
November 11, 2000
The Olympics
October 14, 2000
More metaphors
September 30, 2000
Metaphorical colour
September 16, 2000
Broader vistas
September 2, 2000
August 19, 2000
August 5, 2000
Partial twins
July 22, 2000
Language growth
July 8, 2000

A politician who passes the buck is a sort of loose cannon, capable of doing a lot of damage to his party and country. The phrase comes from the sailing ships of yore which carried cannons for protection from pirates. These cannons were very heavy and had to be secured to the deck. On a rough sea, they could be thrown about, thus causing a lot of damage.

Looking into the origin of expressions gives a better idea of the intended meaning and effective usage follows. Having the upper hand is one such expression which originated with the advent of the game of baseball. In order to determine which team would bat first, a player from each team would come forth. One player would hold the lower end of the bat and the player from the other team would place his hand above it. They would continue alternating hands this way until the last hand on the bat would be the upper hand and that team would get to bat first, having got the upper hand.


The repetition of words has a place of its own in the growth of the lexicon of Hindi. The function and significance of repetition differs with different words and in different sentences. It implies distribution in expressions like sau sau rupaye; variety as in acche acche kaprhe; intensity as in wah wah; reciprocity as in bhai bhai ka prem; adverbial sense of manner as in thik thik baat karna; continuation as in chalte chalte and last but not the least, repetition of an action as in karte karte nipun ho gaya.

— Deepti

This feature was published on March 3, 2001