If you love words, "Red Herrings & White Elephants: The Origins of the Phrases We Use Every Day" by Albert Jack (HarperCollins, 256...
If you love words, “Red Herrings & White Elephants: The Origins of the Phrases We Use Every Day” by Albert Jack (HarperCollins, 256 pp., $15.95), is an addictive treat.
Who wouldn’t want to know the origin of “square meal?” It’s a nautical phrase, based on the fact that on old battleships, breakfast and lunch were pretty dismal. The last meal of the day was the one sailors counted on: “Any significant meal eaten on board a ship would be served on large square wooden trays which sailors carried back to their posts. The trays were square in design to enable them to be stored away both easily and securely, hence the phrase ‘a square meal,’ ” Jack writes.
And how about that red herring? Herring, which turns red when smoked, had “a particularly strong and pungent smell.” Foxhunt saboteurs of the 1800s (apparently a long and proud tradition in England) dragged it across the trail of the fox to confuse the hounds.
In my word-addled family, such a book is called a “stocking stuffer.” Do not, however, give one to that aunt or uncle (probably uncle) who a.) thinks they know everything and b.) wants you to know. See “Have someone over a barrel,” which means “that someone is totally at the mercy of third parties.”
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Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times book editor