Studies indicate that the 50 most common words in written English are words of a single syllable. One of those popular words is 'on.' These classic expressions used with 'on' can refer to honesty, informality, danger, and time. Can you identify the 'on' expressions?
1. What part of a man's shirt means "casual"?
The cuff, of course, as in "on the cuff." Waiters were among the first to use shirt cuffs as notepads to take down orders or tabs. "Off the cuff" is similar in meaning, and once again the cuff was used as a notepad, this time by Hollywood directors who, according to linguist Robert Hendrickson, informally conveyed tips to actors on the scene. Impromptu, after-dinner speeches were likewise "off the cuff," as speakers would hurriedly jot down notes on their stiff shirts during the meal.
2. Where would you be sent for a reprimand two centuries ago?
Probably to a room with a carpet. "On the carpet" has been an idiom since the 1800s, when carpets were first used as floor coverings - but only in a master's room. A servant called "on the carpet" would very likely be facing a reproof. A hundred years previously, he may have only been headed for a chat. The earlier meaning of "carpet" was "tablecloth," and an issue "on the carpet" was one under discussion.
3. What carpentry tool has something to do with honesty?
A level. The expression "on the level" was used in the 1300s to refer to a group of skilled stone workers called Freemasons who traveled together to wherever buildings were being erected. From their use of a plumb-bob level, which ensured a surface true and even, came "on the level," meaning "truthful."
4. What playing card used to make some people nervous?
The ace of spades. Why? The single spot on the card could put you "on the spot" or in danger. The origin of this expression goes back to 18th-century pirates whose back-up symbol for intimidation (after the skull and crossbones) was the dreaded ace of spades with its single black spot. This card was intentionally shown to a traitor or informer as warning that his life was in danger. Anyone sent an ace of spades was "on the spot." Today the phrase means something more like embarrassment.
5. Which sport takes credit for "on the ball"?
That's debatable. Word pundits used to give equal credit to British soccer and American basketball for the phrase's origin: meaning to be alert and on top of things. Recently, however, scholars have added baseball as another possible source, referring to the curves and spins a good pitcher can put "on the ball." In any case, "to be on the ball" comes from athletic pursuits that involve a ball in motion.
6. What does a dot have to do with a clock?
"Be here on the dot," a popular phrase since 1900, refers to the actual dot on the face of a timepiece to mark the exact minute or hour. This expression dies hard. We continue to use it even with digital clocks and watches!