Tag Archives: United States

Pulling Someone’s Leg

The idioms are back again, hurray! Today’s instalment is all about the naughty side of tomfoolery. That’s right, although the phrase ‘to pull someone’s leg’ now denotes a friendly bit of banter, meaning something like ‘to make fun of somebody by making them look foolish’, it actually used to have criminal undertones.

There are many proposed origins for the phrase, but my research suggests that pulling someone’s leg was originally a method used by thieves to entrap their quarry and thereby relieve them of their valuables. One thief would be assigned ‘tripper up’ duty, and would use various instruments (usually a wire) to knock the target to the ground. Whilst the hapless victim crawled about on the floor, the other members of the gang would rush in to complete the robbery.

It is not difficult to see how the comical effect of somebody being tripped over during the course of bit of skulduggery might have given rise to today’s meaning of the phrase.

I am not American (praise Jebus) but I gather that ‘pulling someone’s leg’ in American English retains a sinister edge, alluding to an element of trickery or deception in the part of the leg puller. Perhaps this might be a lingering connotation from the idiom’s less than Christian origin.



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Roger (as used in radio commands)

So my sister set me this challenge. Actually I knew it already, so ’twas no biggie.

Roger is used on the radio to mean ‘message received’. But why? Was there some larger than life radio control man called Roger? Sadly not. Well there might have been, but it certainly was not he who sired the phrase.

The use of Roger  comes from military pilot radio transmissions in the Second World War. In 1941, before the now internationally accepted alpha, beta etc.  both British and American phonetic alphabets used Roger as the standard abbreviation for R, as in Received.

Incidentally, if you ever find yourself on a US military radio channel, do not say ‘repeat’ unless you want to see ash and brimstone fall from the sky. Repeat is only used to request additional artillery fire (you would say ‘say again’ if you wanted somebody to repeat their last message). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


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Fun Friday Fact #15

Ian Fleming’s James Bond is allegedly based on Serbian Second World War double agent Dusko Popov.

Popov was born in 1912 in Titel, Austria-Hungary (now Serbia). He was signed up as a spy by anti-Hitler Abwehr agents [crassly the Nazi’s secret service branch] early in the war and on their suggestion he offered his services to the British. Living in London as a double agent, Popov placated his German employers by feeding them scraps of MI6-approved information, while the assignments that were given to him by his earnest Berlin counterparts proved to be of great value to the British in assessing their enemy’s strategy. The Germans were so impressed by Popov’s trail of breadcrumbs that they considered him ‘their best man in Britain.’

Whilst in London, Popov set up a ‘spy ring’, made up of members who were all MI5 operatives. Unbeknownst to the Nazis, the lavish maintenance money they paid to Popov would be spent on operations against themselves.

In 1941, Popov was dispatched to the U.S. by the Abwehr to establish a new German network, after the kind that he had apparently so successfully constructed in London. He was given a list of questions about various intelligence targets, most famously including the American defences at Pearl Harbor.

Popov explained to the F.B.I. what he had been asked to do, but his warning concerning an imminent attack on Pearl Habor was treated with suspicion by the head of the F.B.I. J. Edgar Hoover, who did not approve of Popov’s reckless ways (of which more later). During his time in America, Popov was threatened with arrest and deportation on several occasions.

Having left America, Popov became a key part of the Operation Fortitude deception campaign. After the Second World War, he was awarded with an OBE for his service to Britain, and granted citizenship. He died in 1981.

When he wasn’t selling the Nazi’s down the river, Popov enjoyed what can only be described as an extravagant lifestyle of epic proportions. Charismatic, good looking and the son of a mega-rich industrialist, Popov was paid huge sums by the Nazis, who believed that his play boy shenanigans were a necessary part of his cover. Bankrolled by the German state, he romanced his way around the world. One of his many conquests was  Simone Simon a then-famous (and already married) American actress. His code name ‘Tricycle’ referred to his enthusiasm for three-in-a-bed scenarios.

In 1941, Ian Fleming locked horns with this remorseless womaniser in a casino and was humiliated by him at the baccarat table. The legend goes that Fleming, who was at the time working for the British Navy Intelligence division, had been arrogantly showing off his money when Popov promptly slapped down $50,000 on the table, shaming the lesser man and forcing him to leave the casino in disgrace.

What a hero.


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A Square Meal

An easy one today children, but some people were asking me about it, and, as you well know, I live to serve.

The phrase ‘a square meal’, meaning, ‘a substantial, nourishing meal’ is often said to have originated from the Royal Navy, as originate the majority of the interesting idioms I have encountered. More specifically, it is rather rashly claimed that the phrase comes from the Royal Navy’s practise of  serving its sailors their meals on square wooden plates.

This explanation sounds likely, but hang on a minute there at the back, I’m not quite finished. You see sometimes these things are just too neat to be true. For one thing, I doubt that the meals the Royal Navy fed to its sailors would have been anything approaching substantial or nourishing, which meant that some bright spark on board would have had to have coined the term with a sarcastic meaning in mind. A tall order for your average C19th sailor. And that’s the other thing – the first recorded instance of the expression is in 1856, in an advertisement for the Hope and Neptune restaurant, in the California newspaper The Mountain Democrat, November 1856. It goes as follows:

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the ‘Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice.”

Now if the phrase was indeed a child of the Royal Navy, then surely it would have been recorded somewhere in the Royal Navy’s logbooks sometime before 1856. The fact that it is not mentioned suggests an alternative derivation.

As we can see from the above, ‘a square meal’ is an American expression, which means that it is likely to have a simple origin (Americans being themselves simple). Indeed for our answer we need look no further than the word ‘square’, which has many meanings, including ‘proper, honest, straightforward’. And there we have it. We are not talking about a meal served on right-angled crockery, but a proper, honest feast.


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Fun Friday Fact #10

Fanta was invented by the Coca-Cola company to sell in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, because the Allies wouldn’t allow the import to Germany of the syrup needed to make Coke.

It must be true because Wikipedia says so. Apparently we have a certain Mr. Max Keith to thank for the refreshing orange drink. Mr. Keith, as you well know, was of course the man in charge of the German branch of the Coca-Cola company at the time. It seems he was unwilling to be put off by such a trivial thing as a World War, and, keen as ever to make some money, he decided to create a new product for the German market, using only ingredients available in Germany at the time (i.e. next to nothing) including whey and pomace – the “leftovers of leftovers”, as he later recalled. The name was the result of a brief brainstorming session, which started with Keith exhorting his team to “use their imagination” (“Fantasie” in German), to which one of his salesmen, Joe Knipp, banterously retorted “Fanta!” In other news, the German Fanta Klare Zitrone (“Clear Lemon Fanta”) variety became Sprite, another of the company’s bestsellers and its response to 7 Up.

But Coke’s relationship with the Second World War doesn’t end here. Oh no. The American salesmen were just as canny as their German counterparts. Before the outbreak of war, Coke was already a symbol of the American dream. Many GIs wrote home listing the drink as one of the things about home they most missed (losers). In response to this (or more likely because he got the sniff for a massive financial opportunity) Coca-Cola CEO Robert Woodruff made a point of supporting US troops, sending an order to: “See that ever man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca Cola for 5 cents wherever he is and whatever the cost to the company.”  Metal cans were introduced to meet the troops’ needs, and when the US Army landed in North Africa in 1943  3 complete Coca Cola bottling plants were brought ashore. 148 of Coke’s employees were sent abroad to oversee the installation and management of these plants. They were given US Army uniforms with the rank of Technical Observer and were treated as officers, although they had no military duties to speak of. They were affectionately known as the “Coca-Cola Colonels.”

The GI’s loved it. After all, how bad could a war be when a man was fighting the Italians and had a belly full of sugar? But at the same time as boosting the morale of American fighting forces, the  Coca-Cola company was slyly laying the groundwork for becoming an international symbol of refreshment and solidarity. Many of the bottling plants established overseas during the war continued to operate as non-military factories after the war’s end. Furthermore, GI’s liberating towns throughout Europe or working side-by-side with locals in the Philippines felt pride in sharing their favourite drink with their new-found friends. They thereby created an enormous consumer base throughout the world that would not have been possible without the Coca-Cola Company’s cooperation in working towards bettering the morale of the American fighting man. I suppose you can’t blame them really. And I do love me some Fanta.

A young boy and a bulldozer operator with the 64th Seabees enjoy a coke or two in Tubabao, Samar, the Philippines.

Well isn’t that nice?


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Fun Friday Fact #6

In the absence of tanks of their own, or indeed of anti-tank weapons, Japanese soldiers would position themselves in ‘foxholes’, triumphantly bearing a bomb above their heads, ready to detonate it when an Allied tank rolled overhead.

They would also throw themselves under the tracks of a tank, strapped with explosives, of course. That’s when they weren’t lobbing coconuts at the tanks… This fact, fun as it is, demonstrates a real point – that the Japanese were not ready to fight a modern war like the war that found them in 1943-45. Early naval victories over the Allies in the pacific were cancelled out by the emergence of a new super power in the form of the USA. The Japanese, however brave were their troops, were not an equal match for what in two short years had surpassed the Germans as the most modern fighting force in the world. Let’s not forget that in her rise to the top of the food chain (1941-43), America had overtaken nations that had been gearing for war for 8-10 years. That is an astonishing achievement. Japan, on the other hand, was fighting with rifles that had been used in 1903. Indeed their men still trained with bows and arrows. Their soldiers were expected to work miracles with no resources whatsoever, and the most startling thing of all is that quite often they did! But the Second World War was a war of technology. The Japanese had no answer to the Anglo-American bombing campaigns, and the war in the pacific was over long before the Atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I’m hanging here people; this is the best I can do. Give me a break alright. There’s no need to be so pushy.


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