Must-see American expressions that have added colour to the English language

Here are the origins of some more Americanisms that are in common usage wherever English is spoken

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 26 May 2022, 7:48 PM

Last week, we discussed the stories behind a number of distinctively American expressions that have added colour to the English language, from “the whole nine yards” to “passing the buck”. Here are the origins of some more Americanisms that are in common usage wherever English is spoken — and which originate, for the most part, in America’s great rivers, especially the Mississippi.

Last week, we looked at a couple of expressions that went back to the two World Wars, but some have an even older past. If someone speaks of an ‘iron-clad contract’ or an agreement that cannot be broken, he’s using a term that goes all the way back to the US Civil War of the 1860s, when iron-clad ships plied the waters, armoured against the artillery of the other side. “Iron-clad” that came to mean something so strong that it could not be destroyed, a perfect analogy for an agreement so unshakeable that it could not be broken.

It is common for people of a certain age to dismiss low-class ill-bred persons as ‘riff-raff’. The expression comes from travelling in the 19th century on the Mississippi River, which flows north to south in the US. Riverboats carried well-off passengers and freight, but they were too expensive for ordinary people, who instead used rafts to travel more cheaply. Rafts were steered using oars called “riffs” and so, the rafts themselves were called riff-rafts. Riff-raft soon got transmuted into riff-raff, meaning cheap or low-class.

Also in the late 19th century, when travelling by steamboat was the preferred means of transportation for the affluent who wished to travel in comfort, their equivalent of First Class was the ship’s ‘state rooms’. The expression came from the fact that these elite passenger cabins were not numbered, which would have seemed too déclassé. Instead, they were named after American states — so your room was in the “Ohio State Room” or the “Connecticut State Room”. To this day, luxury cabins on ships are called staterooms, even though the names of the states are no longer used and — horror of horrors — they may even be numbered!

Riverboats were not only used for transport but also for entertainment. ‘Showboats’ were floating theatres constructed on top of barges that were pushed by a steamboat, offering entertainment at each stop, usually small riverside towns along the Mississippi. Since they existed to attract attention from potential paying patrons, they were rather gaudily done up and everyone noticed them when they steamed in. People who similarly deck themselves up and who try to grab attention by their behaviour are often described in America as “showboating”.

Theatres were not the only river traffic using barges. Heavy freight also travelled along the Mississippi in large barges pushed by steamboats that plied the river. These were often hard to control and the barges would sometimes be pushed by the waves into piers or bang into other boats. Thus was born the expression “to barge in”. Today it applies to people, not boats, who intrude into other people’s conversations or social occasions without an invitation — “barging in” just like those old freight barges on the Mississippi.

In those days, steamboats were used to carry both people and animals, including hogs or pigs. Since these creatures gave off a rather powerful smell, they would be washed before being brought on board. The mud and other odorous filth that was washed off the pigs was considered “hog wash”. The expression soon became synonymous for anything absolutely useless or unacceptably false or exaggerated — “that Spokesman’s explanation was a load of hogwash!”

Once in a while, of course, a boat would capsize, and some sailors and passengers might even drown in the river. When drowning people were rescued alive from the water, the technique of CPR had not been invented in those days, so a victim would be placed face-down over a barrel, and the barrel would be rolled back and forth in an effort to empty the lungs of water. It worked sometimes, but more often did not. So it began to be said, in grim tones, that the person was “over a barrel”, meaning that he was drowning in deep trouble, which he might not survive. The technique has mercifully been long abandoned, but the expression survives!

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