I have children. They are at an age where they are beginning to question the world around them, how it works and why things happen the way they do. Today has been a day full of questions.

“Why do they call it ‘chicken pox’? Why don’t they call it itchy spots?”

“What does ‘beat you soundly’ mean?”

“How do squirrels climb trees?”

What are the answers to these questions? I’m not exactly sure, but as a writer, I know that I can quick as a blink (where did that expression come from?) Google it and have an answer that will appease these questions, and so many more, in no time. The only question remaining is how accurate the information that their search engines digs up, actually is.

For example, only today I came across the phrase “on the wagon” and learned that it probably came from actual wagons that were used to transport inebriated people to either prison or the gallows. I had read today that it was a phrase that came from the story about William Booth’s (founder of the Salvation Army) daughter who collected drunkards off the street and gathered them into her cart, to be transported back to the Sally Anne for eternal salvation.

Not to knock the herculean efforts of this charitable organization, but on further investigation, the etymology of this phrase becomes a little sketchy. In actual fact, and with several other websites backing up this information, it seems more likely that the phrase would have originally been “on the water-wagon”. At the beginning of the twentieth century, American streets were largely unpaved. Water wagons were used to keep the dust down. As the temperance movement was also quite strong during this time, one who was abstaining from alcohol would lean towards water as a beverage of choice instead. The phrase “one the water-wagon” referred to someone who was drinking water, not alcohol. It eventually got shortened to “on the wagon”.

While I ponder this phrase and its origins, I sip on a drink (alcoholic, I’m afraid) and think about children and their innate curiousity. The English language is a funny thing and the phrases that we have come up with over the years can be quite obscure, at best. It is no wonder that children have so many questions, especially when they hear sayings like “running like a chicken with its head cut off”. I know where that comes from, compliments of my grandfather keeping chickens when I was a child, but why on earth do we compare ourselves to this ghastly postmortem experience, when in truth we are merely busy?

All I can say is that compliments to reading scads of books, I have a myriad of downright odd sayings that escape me on a regular basis. If I have to continually explain them all to my children, I suspect that I will be passing on the old “water-wagon” for the foreseeable future. But if you happen to know where the chicken came from in “chicken” pox, drop me a line and let me know.

Because curiousity killed the cat…

Water-Wagon from the turn of the Century

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