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Etymology Excavation: Judas goat

Etymology Excavation: Judas goat

What is a ‘Judas goat’?

Originally, a Judas goat refers to a goat trained to make its way into a herd of beasts marked for slaughter, so that they will follow it into the slaughterhouse. The Judas goat itself is then spared from slaughter so it can do the same thing again. (Wikipedia)

The animal in question varies, but the reference is to the figure Judas Iscariot in the Christian Bible, who betrayed Jesus’s identity and ultimately led to his execution. The details of the story vary widely, but the use of the term ‘Judas’ for a traitor has been in use since the C15th (Etymonline.com).

Some examples of Judas goat used figuratively:

  • ‘He’s a Judas goat. He led the whole army into a trap.’
  • ‘That girl’s a Judas goat. Any stupid decision she makes, the entire squad follows.’

It can be used figuratively for a person being used to bait a trap, or for any figure leading others to disaster. All you really need, in terms of world-building, is a rumoured or actual figure who through design or stupidity, caused a disaster. It doesn’t need a lot of build-up (ancient scroll, anyone?) and can be used for local colour in a range of situations.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: When push comes to shove

Etymology Excavation: When push comes to shove

Where does ‘when push comes to shove’ really come from?

‘When push comes to shove’ means when you get down to something, when a subject or situation is stripped down to essentials, when the point is reached at which a commitment must be made.

No one seems to be exactly certain where this phrase actually originated, although there are a lot of interesting theories flying around the Internet. A couple of my favourites:

It originates from the game of rugby, where pushing and shoving is a vital skill. (This origin appears to have the most votes.)

Terry Pratchett, in Thief of Time, hints to the phrase coming from midwifery (Nanny Ogg).

It’s also been featured in songs, notably Grateful Dead ‘When Push comes to Shove‘, and Van Halen ‘Fair Warning – ¬†Push Come to Shove‘.

Examples of ‘when push comes to shove’:

If push comes to shove, I doubt he’s got the guts for it.

Governments may encourage gender equality, but when push comes to shove, they’ll follow the money.

I’ve heard it used reasonably often on both sides of the Atlantic. While it’s definitely a colloquialism, it’s one that’s now been around so long that it wouldn’t be out of place in a range of settings.

Could it be adapted for use in a fantasy or sci-fi scenario? I can’t imagine why not; the phrase itself evokes vivid imagery, so it could be inserted as-is into a lot of world-building without flagging itself as an anachronism. Given the (probable) sporting origins of the phrase, it could be equally easily adapted to a pastime invented as part of your world-building.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: Raining cats and dogs

Etymology Excavation: Raining cats and dogs

‘Raining cats and dogs’ means a very hard rain, or a downpour.

Happily, I haven’t come across any mis-uses of this one – feel free to chip in if you have, my comments section is your comments section – but I hate to think what today’s creatively illiterate might come up with as alternates for it.

There’s a rather nice (but convincingly de-bunked) theory that had it that cats and dogs would shelter in thatched roofs in rainstorms, but if the rain was much more than than a shower, they’d be washed out – hence, heavy rain came to be expressed as ‘raining cats and dogs’. Sadly, as anyone familiar with thatched roofs will realise, thatch is very tight. You won’t fit anything much larger than a beetle in thatch; and while a cat might sun itself on top of a roof, it wouldn’t stay there after more than a couple of drops of rain. Also, the next time I see a dog on a roof of any make will be the first.

A more gruesome, but probably more historically accurate, theory states that due to the poor (read non-existent) drainage prevalent for much of England’s history, smaller domestic animals frequently drowned in very heavy rain, and in the aftermath, their bodies would lie in the roads, giving the appearance of it having literally rained cats and dogs.

There’s also a nice version involving Norse beliefs, cats and dogs having influence over winds and storms, and adoption of the phrase into English. Take your pick.

I’ve seen dates on this one from from the 17th Century to the 19th; I’m inclined to credit the earlier end of the spectrum as thatched roofs became increasingly less common, giving way usually to roof tiles in Britain, the closer to the modern day you get. A gentleman named Jonathan Swift seems to be universally credited with one of its earliest uses in writing, in 1738.

It also seems to be largely a phrase used in British English. I haven’t heard it used in North America, although I suspect it’s been around long enough that most people would understand the basic idea, even if it might sound rather quaintly old-fashioned. My usual favourite source for these posts, Etymonline.com, wasn’t willing to commit to much on this expression.

While this phrase might be tricky to adapt as-is to an SFF world, taking the base idea and running with it would provide some excellent world-building opportunities. Take the mythology angle, and you get the chance to develop a spectrum of creatures with influences over the elements, for example.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: At full tilt

Etymology Excavation: At full tilt

“At full tilt” means flat out, at top speed, as fast as possible. Its origins don’t have anything to do with being unsteady, at an angle, or, indeed poker.

The term derives from the sport of jousting, or tilting (ever heard of ’tilting at windmills’?), and ‘at full tilt’ is believed to have first come into use as an expression in the mid-1600s. Common theories (check out etymonline.com for even more good stuff) are that it comes from either the practice of leaning in to meet the attack when jousting, or, conversely, from tilt or tent, referring to the flimsy barrier that separates the two riders when they joust.

Examples of ‘at full tilt’

I ran down the hill at full tilt.

We’re going to need to work at full tilt to get this done in time.

Is it still in common use? Depends who you ask. I’m a Millennial, and I use it; my parents’ generation certainly did. On the whole, it’s probably more likely to be used in British English than American English.

It’s one of those phrases you can use to hint at a character’s background in contemporary work such as a thriller – maybe your anti-hero is British and gives himself away with it, for example.

If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, you can also adapt this type of expression. If (random example, honest) your invented culture includes people swinging on big metal balls hung from cranes, you’d use ‘at full swing’. (Oddly enough, ‘in full swing’ is another weird English idiom that I probably will be covering on another day.)

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: coming down the pike

Etymology Excavation: coming down the pike

‘Coming down the pike’ can be used to indicate something coming to prominence, up-and-coming, making itself noticed. I’ve also seen it used as a warning phrase, e.g. ‘something big’s coming down the pike – better get ready.’.

A common mistake with this one is ‘coming down the pipe’, which possibly came into being as the word ‘pike’ became less and less common.

Coming down the pikeAccording to Grammarist, usage of the word pike originated in the U.S.A. in the early 19th century, and the earliest known instances of ‘coming down the pike’ appeared around 1900.

However, the word pike, or turnpike, has become increasingly rarer, mostly replaced by ‘toll road’ or ‘highway’ – ‘motorway’ in other English dialects – and so many people have slipped into using ‘pipe’ for ‘pike’, most likely because they know what ‘pipe’ means and are a lot less certain of ‘pike’.

Examples of ‘coming down the pike’:

  • With the budget report out next week, we’re looking at a lot of questions coming down the pike
  • Jim McClaffee is the biggest thing to come down the pike since Bob Dylan!

This phrase is fairly common, although not exactly well-known, and ‘down the pipe’, as mentioned above, is probably its most common misspelling. Pretty much every source that mentioned this phrase indicated it originated in US English, although I have heard it occasionally used in the UK.

This would be a really simple base phrase to adapt to pretty much any fantasy or sci-fi world; after all, everyone has to get from place to place somehow. For example, substitute ‘skyway’ for ‘pike’…and there you are, brand new, relatable idiom.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

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