Quiz: Can You Complete These Old-Fashioned Slang Phrases?: HowStuffWorks
Can You Complete These Old-Fashioned Slang Phrases?
By: Zoe Samuel
7 Min Quiz
Image: RichLegg / E+ / Getty Images
About This Quiz
Every era has slang that defines it. Slang can originate in pop culture, as with slang from music, movies or TV. Slang can come from a specific subculture, like an ethnic subculture or an activity-oriented subculture. Slang can come from cultures overseas, as with the suddenly popular Australian saying "No worries."
The origins of slang aren't always clear, but the style of slang often indicates the era from which it originated. Much of modern slang comes in the form of acronyms or misspellings that point to origins in texting or in chatting online. Conversely, slang from a century or more in the past will come from the criminal world or specific professions.
Knowledge of slang is often the entry point to a subculture. Knowing the lexicon of a subculture implies empathy and understanding. It's a cue that someone is "one of us," a state that elicits trust from other members of the subculture. If you have a knack for learning lingo, many doors will open for you even if you have no business passing through them. Of course, once you've talked your way through a door, there's no telling what's on the other side. Test your slang knowledge by seeing if you can complete these old-fashioned slang phrases!
If some tough guy said you were "cruisin' for _______", what would he be leaving out?
The phrase "cruisin' for a bruisin'" is a classic bit of slang from the 1950s and 1960s, combining an existing slang term into a rhyme. Cruising was a term used to describe the activity of driving slowly, looking for something, usually something fun. Thus, cruisin' for a bruisin' is looking for a chance to be badly beaten. More commonly, the expression meant that someone wasn't being careful or safe.
If you're talking about a place to feel safe, what would be missing from the phrase "_______ pad"?
"Crash pad" is a term coming out of mid-century America, referring to a place you can sleep safely but that isn't necessarily your home or even a home at all. It originated in the Beatnick culture of the 1950s but still pops up today from time to time, showing that some old slang has the power to endure.
Who belongs "on the spot" in this expression to do with being ready to act?
"Johnny on the spot" is a slang expression originating in New York City in the late 1800s. The precise origin of the expression is unclear, but it may have come from someone actually named Johnny. The phrase is a way of calling someone a professional who is ready to act when needed, as in "Doctor Sarah Walters is a Johnny on the spot in the Emergency Room."
If you heard "Gosh, autumn was warm, but then it got cold very suddenly! It was a real _______ summer", what would you put in the blank?
The origins of the slang phrase "Indian Summer" go back a long way. In 1778, a book published in the U.K. quoted an American as describing an autumn like the one described above, using the term "Indian summer." What's interesting is that, being British, most people reading it interpreted the term to mean it came from India, not North America. Of course, since the term "Indian" used in this context can be very charged, it's not an expression that remains in much use, though many will recognize it.
What verb goes with the noun "bail" to describe a specific bad idea?
You may be familiar with the phrase "to jump bail," but did you know this expression goes back more than a hundred years, appearing in slang dictionaries way back to the middle of the 1800s? Bail, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a fee payable by defendants who would otherwise be held in prison. The deal is that they will return to face charges. Bail bondsmen are people who loan money for bail, which works like any loan. Jumping bail refers to the practice of paying bail and leaving the jurisdiction, regardless of where the bail came from.
Someone said "That things so amazing, it's outta _____". What word goes in the blank?
"Outta sight" is a saying that came into use in the 1950s but reached its peak usage in the 1960s. It means "something is so amazing, there is no way to absorb it all; the eyes are incapable of seeing all of it because it's so huge." While this saying still pops up now and then, it's usually either used ironically or to evoke something specific about the age from which it comes.
In the mid-20th-century phrase "too cool for _______", something is missing. What do you think that is?
The middle of the 20th century saw an explosion of slang because of the falling cost of printing, the advents of broadcast TV and radio, and greater engagement in the monoculture, allowing slang to spread. One expression that benefitted from this was "too cool for school," a saying that refers, somewhat ironically, to the act of dropping out of beneficial activities, like attending school.
When someone says "My party is so hip, it's a party a-________", what is missing?
"A-go-go" first appears around 1965, according to Merriam Webster. Being slang, its meaning can be a fickle and protean thing, but generally, it's a positive suffix, meaning that the thing preceding it is either current and cool or at least of high quality. Thus, a dance party could be a "dance party a-go-go" or, more ironically, an election debate could be an "election debate a-go-go."
If you finished the phrase "Pish! My talents are up to _______", how would you finish it?
While people still use the phrase "up to snuff," it is becoming an increasingly old fashioned phrase. The good news is that you can still use it, because most people today know it means "having the required skills or qualities for a task." As far as we know, the saying dates back to 1811, in John Poole's play Hamlet Travestie.
How would you complete the phrase "Just that? Sure, pal. No _________."?
The expression "no sweat" can be traced back as far as a book about the Korean War, published in 1951. The speaker in this case insists that the task at hand is not difficult and thus will not elicit perspiration from the task's doer.
Which word would you pick to complete the phrase "Get someone else to do your dirty work. I'm not setting an appointment with ____ Ketch"?
The slang phrase "Jack Ketch" is very, very old. its use can be traced all the way to 1682 when it was cited in a story as the actual name of a specific hangman. The name became a synonym for hangmen and executioners, falling out of use by 1900, in favor of better-known dangers to criminals, many of them local to the criminals' location.
What's missing from the phrase "you'd better keep your ______ clean"?
The original uses of the sentiment "keeping one's hands clean" have nothing to do with the law, as it might be used now. It had to do with something one might do on one's own that the Victorians wouldn't approve of. When the slang came to America, it became more about noses than hands, but the meaning is the same: stay out of trouble.
Your friend complains that their career has "gone up a blind _______". What goes in the blank?
The saying "to go up a blind alley" refers to the act of engaging in a course of action that is simultaneously hopeless and without any possible solution. The expression has its roots in 15th-century translations of Virgil, but the first recorded uses of it in common use come from American newspapers in the late 1800s. Next time you want to sound sophisticated and a little old fashioned, use this phrase.
What do you think comes "before swine"?
The phrase "pearls before swine" is an interesting construction because "before" in this instance means "in front of," not "preceding." Thus, this phrase means a thing of great value given to those who do not appreciate its value. One could therefore say that a great actor in a bad movie could be pearls before swine.
You overheard someone at a party say that when you danced, you "tripped ___________". What was missing from that?
The phrase "to trip the light fantastic" has its origins with Milton and meant to dance well with music. "Trip" in this usage has origins in dancing, not falling over. Times change, though, and more recently, the saying has a slang meaning too. More commonly, it means to dance in a way that is awful, unusual and noteworthy. Think of Elaine's dancing on "Seinfeld."
When someone says "Look at those people, in their wall-_________ and re-soled shoes", what word are they leaving out?
Interestingly, the old meaning of "wall-flowers" is "old or second-hand clothing," according to "The Rogue's Lexicon." While the term "wallflower" as referring to "someone who sits on the sidelines at a party" is still in use, it dates back to at least the 1820s, meaning that use is both contemporary and very old. An important distinction, however: Wall-flowers (plural, hyphenated) can mean either the people or the clothes, but wallflower (singular, no hyphen) only indicates the person.
1960s slang might call for "racing for ______". What would you drop in that blank?
"Racing for pinks" is an expression popular among 1960s racers, meaning "to engage in a race in cars, in which the stakes are the cars' titles." The exact origin of this expression is unclear, and while it is in limited use today, it isn't a common saying anymore.
In the phrase "Get in the ________", a word is missing. What is that word?
The saying "get in the groove" is an old one, though you do still hear it from time to time. Its origins are with records. To play a record, the record player's needle needs to fit into the record's grove. "Get into the groove" thus means to lock in so everything is working properly. Similarly, this is the root of the expression "groovy."
What would you guess goes in the blank in "________ parsnips"?
"Fine words butter no parsnips" is as much proverb as slang and dates back to England in the 1600s. Lots of expressions and slang had to do with butter back then, but this saying, the earliest example of which comes from a book titled "Paroemiologia," focuses the buttery preoccupation of authors of slang, turning butter into a metaphor for action. Clever.
What might one want to "keep dry" in a military situation?
The expression "to keep your powder dry" is old military slang. Originally, it was likely linked to the need to keep gunpowder dry for it to work when needed. More colloquially, it means to hold back and keep your resources in reserve so you can act decisively when you want to.
What would you make of the blank in the phrase "That kid's a Tyburn _________"?
The Tyburn was first known as the name of a small river in London. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, it was known as the place of execution for thousands of criminals who were hanged on the massive Tyburn Triple Tree, a gallows capable of hanging 15 men at once. The expression "Tyburn Blossom" far outlived that brutal time and became a colorful way of describing someone as a young thief.
What might you consider for the blank in "make a clean _______ of it"?
In the phrase "make a clean breast," the final word refers to the seat of emotion — the heart, not an outer part of the body. To make a clean breast is to have a clean conscience, to have made amends or confession in such a way as to pay for one's actions. This saying can be dated back to as early as the 1700s, in English, though there may be similar expressions in other languages.
If the phone cut out, what would you think was missing from "You're so wrong. Go _______ your ______"?
The expression "Go boil your head" is a wonderfully colorful expression that, while not in use much today, has parallels with other expressions we do use. Often used in writing on the opinions of others, it means essentially the same thing as the modern slang "Delete your account." It means "I think you are an idiot and you are wrong in every way."
What word belongs in "Check out the expensive suit! Nothing in his pockets though, the ______ man."?
A "flash man" is a man who outwardly lives a lifestyle that suggests he has a lot of money but who is actually totally broke. The saying dates back well over a century, though its use has tailed off in recent years. Interestingly, calling something "flash" or "flashy" still means "looking overtly expensive," so the expression is still alive with us today.
If you were in the right period, how would you fill in the blank in "Jack is such an excellent weaver, he's the ___________ of weavers"?
Just like we call people "The LeBron James of Hockey" or "The Steven Spielberg of radio," for many decades after the Napoleonic Wars, calling someone "the Napoleon of X" was a way of saying someone was the best, the greatest, the most undisputedly best at X. This is one of the reasons for Sherlock Holmes calling Professor Moriarty the Napoleon of crime.
Take a look at "far from the ________ crowd." What do you think is missing?
If you want to describe a rural environment free of the intensity of city life, with all its people, then this is the slang for you. This turn of phrase dates back to 1751, in a poem by Thomas Hardy. While this phrase is still in use by the especially literate or erudite, it's obscure enough to be seen as primarily slang from another era. Feel free to use it, but don't expect everyone will understand you. Also, madding is, apparently, a word.
What would you put in the blank in the phrase "grasp the ________"?
The phrase "to grasp the nettle" refers to the act of deliberately laying bare hands on the stinging nettle. As the name would suggest, stinging nettles sting, and grasping one is a difficult thing to do, the understood meaning of the phrase today. Early uses of the saying seemed to suggest more of an association with proof of strength or courage, not merely difficulty.
What part of the phrase is missing in the statement "I don't understand your stuttering! Quit your ____fishing!"
Stamfishing is a colorful expression from the 1800s that means the act of speaking in a way that makes absolutely no sense. It appears to be a portmanteau of "stammering" and perhaps something to do with making a face like a fish. It can be found listed in "The Rogue's Lexicon," which was printed in 1859.
How would you fill in the blank in "life isn't all _____"?
The phrase "beer and skittles" is a way of saying that the thing being compared to beer and skittles isn't easy. Beer and skittles refer to the kinds of things people do at a pub, with skittles referring to a precursor of bowling. Thus, saying one's job or one's life isn't beer and skittles is like saying that one's life isn't all wine and roses.
What's missing in "_______ your ivories"?
"Flashing one's ivories" is a saying you still hear now and then, but it appears in slang dictionaries dating back well over a hundred years. In case you've never heard it, it means "to show one's teeth, usually in a grin." Flashing your ivories is a sure-fire way to make people think you're friendly; just don't leave them out there too long. It's a flash, and that's all!
If you were in a meeting in the right era, someone might say "on with the ________". What would go in that blank?
"On with the motley" is a very old slang expression with its roots in theater. Its slang meaning is "get on with it," but its roots go back to at least the late 1800s when it appeared in the opera "Pagliacci." "Motley" refers to a type of performer found in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, often seen in a type of clothing called a motley, usually made of scraps of mismatched cloth. The word for the show a motley would put on was also "a motley," and thus, "on with the motley" meant "begin the show."
There's a phrase that goes "Springing the ______". How does it end?
"Springing the plant" is one of many slang expressions from the late 1800s. It refers to the act of revealing the location of stolen property, or to remove the stolen property from its hiding place.
Meaning "in excellent health," what is missing from the phrase "as fit as a ________"?
The saying "as fit as a butcher's dog" is an especially evocative expression you don't hear very much anymore. It literally means "in great health," and the subtext is that the butcher's dog is in great health because the butcher's dog eats scraps of meat, not because the butcher presents the dog with a healthy diet or lots of exercise. If you love dogs, and aren't a vegan, you should consider using it. More butchers should have dogs!
If someone said "I'm sorry, but we're full to the ________", what are they leaving out?
"Full to the gunwales" is an interesting slang expression with a nautical origin. A gunwale (pronounced GUN-ahl) is a surface on a ship, specifically the sort of "railing" along the top edge of a hull. Huge ships have them, as do canoes. When a ship is full to the gunwales, it is full. Generally, this would refer to a ship that transports goods, but it could be applied to people as well. Either way, this phrase uses the ship as a metaphor.
What's missing in "Jenny is so good at her job, she's a real _____ maker"?
The root expression is "to make hay while the sun shines," meaning "to make use of opportunities when they present themselves." A haymaker is thus someone who makes hay while the sun shines. In boxing, the common situation for the use of this phrase, a haymaker is a big punch delivered when an opening presents itself.
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