Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Origins of some words and phrases


Dr Daniel Salmon

Salmonella is named after Daniel Elmer Salmon (1850 – 1914), an American veterinary surgeon. Salmon spent his career studying animal diseases for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and first discovered a bacillus which caused ‘swing plague.’ The strain of bacteria was located in the intestinal tract of a pig. At the time, 1880's, this bacteria was named Bacterium suipestifer but was later renamed Salmonella in his honour.

Dr Joseph Lister, 1902

Listerine, a brand of antiseptic mouthwash product, is named after Joseph Lister, a pioneer of antiseptic surgery. Inspired by Louis Pasteur's ideas on microbial infection, English doctor Joseph Lister demonstrated in 1865 that use of carbolic acid on surgical dressings would significantly reduce rates of post-surgical infection. Lister's work in turn inspired St. Louis-based doctor Joseph Lawrence to develop an alcohol-based formula for a surgical antiseptic which included eucalyptol, menthol, methyl salicylate, and thymol (Its exact composition is a commercial secret). Lawrence named his antiseptic "Listerine" in honour of Lister, which didn’t please Lister.

Invented as a powerful surgical antiseptic, it was later sold, in distilled form, as both a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea. Sales didn’t take off until the 1920s when it was promoted as a solution for "chronic halitosis"— a then obscure medical term for bad breath. Listerine's new ads featured forlorn young women and men, eager for marriage but turned off by their mate's rotten breath.

By the way, Listerine vintage ads coined the phrase “Often a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

The phrase to turn a blind eye, meaning to ignore unwelcome or undesirable information, owes its origin to Admiral Horatio Nelson. During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, a cautious man, in overall command of the British forces, sent a signal to Vice Admiral Nelson ordering Nelson's forces to discontinue the action and retreat. Naval orders were transmitted via a system of signal flags at that time. When this order was brought to the attention of Nelson, he lifted his telescope to his blind, patched eye and said "I really do not see the signal." Most of his forces continued the attack. The frigates supporting the line-of-battle ships did break off, in one case suffering severe losses in the retreat. Parker was recalled in disgrace and Nelson appointed Commander-in-Chief of the fleet.

Flea market comes from the French marché aux puces, a name originally given to a market in Paris which specialised in shabby second-hand goods of the kind that might contain fleas. The earliest English use dates from 1922.

Balls to the wall, meaning to go all out, run at full speed, push to the limit, has a rude connotation but it isn’t so. The phrase comes from old-fashioned steam engines:

James Watt ball regulator
James Watt, one of the pioneers of steam engine development in the early 1800s invented lots of stuff. One item was the “fly ball regulator” which worked to regulate steam pressure and speed in a steam engine. As pictured above, the regulator used two balls mounted on arms. These were usually made of iron or brass and depending on the size of the engine they were used on, varied in weight and other details. They all worked the same though.

The regulator was hooked to the flywheel and as the flywheel spun, so did the regulator. As it spun faster the centrifugal force would cause the balls to raise higher and higher until the engine reached full speed at which point the balls would be “out” and facing toward the wall. At this point, the regulator would vent steam to keep the engine from running away or experiencing an explosion due to too much pressure. When these regulators became virtually standard and chief engineers asked mechanics at what speed an engine was running, they’d reply, “balls out” or “balls to the wall” to indicate it was humming along at full steam.

It is believed that the expression “brass balls”, meaning courage, audacity, guts, has the same origin. 

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