Posted by: Jack Henry | February 7, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Idiomatic Phrases from R. Lederer

Happy Thursday!

I was thinking about discussing a few idiomatic phrases today, and then my favorite newspaper clipper (Thanks, Ron!) left an article right here on my doorstep, so I decided to share these phrasal origins with you instead. These are from one of Richard Lederer’s articles here.

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.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

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