The odd origins of some familiar idioms

When the idiom “small potatoes” first appeared in 1836, its meaning was clear. Today, some children haven’t even heard it before.


At the end of May, President Donald Trump tweeted that he knew about a scandal that would make Watergate “LOOK LIKE SMALL POTATOES!” When my teenage children saw it, they were confused. They thought “potatoes” was some sort of autocorrect.  

According to a totally scientific survey of my friends’ children, zero out of 11 kids have heard small potatoes, and, without context, cannot guess that it means “insignificant or unimportant.” 

Today, we love small potatoes. At my local supermarket, little fingerlings cost around four times as much per pound as larger russets. If you didn’t already know that small potatoes was disparaging, you wouldn’t be able to figure it out. When the idiom first appeared in 1836, however, its meaning was clear. Potatoes were a staple food, keeping millions of people from starvation, and it was obvious that bigger was better.  

English has many other idioms that have likewise lost their original context. To me, a chip on one’s shoulder is a prime example. I knew that the idiom described “a sense of inferiority characterized by a quickness to take offence,” as Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang puts it. But before I did some research, I had no idea what kind of “chip” is referred to here, or what it would be doing on anyone’s shoulder.

It turns out that in 19th-century America, a person who wanted to start a fight would put a chip of wood on his shoulder and challenge others to knock it off. Such scenes do occur in 19th-century fiction. In an 1871 novel for example, one schoolboy goads another: “Lon looked around till he found a small chip, which he placed on his shoulder. … ‘You don’t dare to knock that chip off my shoulder!’ he said tauntingly.” With this context, it’s easy to see how the idiom acquired its meaning.   

To get a person’s goat – to annoy or upset someone – has an even more fantastical-sounding origin. Goats are often kept with high-strung horses to calm them down. According to longtime trainer Richard Mandella, “They can really help a nervous horse; make a night-and-day difference.” This is well attested, but now the story gets a bit dodgier – an unscrupulous competitor might steal a horse’s goat before a race, making it too upset to run well. 

Other etymologists link the idiom instead to the U.S. Navy. The mascot of the Naval Academy is a goat, an animal often brought aboard ships. In a 1908 collection of naval terms, “got his goat” appears as slang for a successful prank, which might be taken as “a friendly josh” or make its “victim” genuinely angry. 

Some idioms are obvious: A needle in a haystack needs no explanation. Next week, we’ll take a look at a few more of the mysterious ones.

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