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Column: Getting ‘down to brass tacks’ on funny little sayings

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opinion Perham, 56573
Perham Minnesota 222 2nd Avenue SE 56573

“There’s a little good in the worst of us, and a little bad in the best of us. It scarce behooves the most of us, to talk about the rest of us.”

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I don’t know who the author of that quote is. I can tell you that my uncle quoted it to my cousin so many times and for so many deserved reasons that, via my cousin, it has survived my uncle’s death.

Now, years later, it has survived my cousin’s death, too. Cousin Doug is gone; the saying is still here.

Another saying comes to mind:

“Whether it is a cool breeze or a cold draft often depends upon who opened the window.”

That one was told to me by the first heating repairman I ever worked with. He uttered it one day when the wife of the house complained that the furnace was too hot. About then the husband came in and complained that the furnace was too cold.

I have since read that there is a solution to this too-hot, too-cool problem. Psychologists researching this issue in large buildings where each floor is filled with cubicles found that putting a thermostat in each cubicle reduced the number of complaints about the temperature nearly 50 percent.

The thermostats weren’t hooked to anything.

“Solve this problem,” I can see the building maintenance supervisor saying to the servicing organization, “by hook or by crook.”

The saying “by hook or by crook” is kind of interesting. It goes back to the forest laws of merry olde England, when all wooded lands of the country were the private property of the king. The only right of the people regarding these forests were for them to be allowed into the forest for firewood. Nothing else. Only dead branches on the ground. To be caught with anything else meant you were going to pay through the nose.

Dead branches still up in the tree were legal, as long as they could be pulled down “by hook or by crook,” which was a shepherd’s crook.

Ah, but “to pay through the nose” if one were caught, that goes back to a saying that originated when the Vikings sailed their ships down the European coast and up the rivers, pillaging and conquering. After they had taken possession of these various villages, every so often a ship came to collect a tax from these conquered people. If they didn’t have anything with which to pay the tax, their nose was slit, the better to recognize them the next time. They “paid through the nose.”

I guess you could say that they got “into hot water.” That expression came from the days when invading forces tried to scale the castle or fort walls. The defenders early on realized that a vat full of hot water was quite often more than adequate to drive these unwelcome guests off.

It’s time for me to “get down to brass tacks.” Before I do, let me say that this saying goes back to nautical days, although now it means to get down to business, or get to work. Back then, it meant to scrape barnacles and stuff off the ship’s hull, and not to stop scraping until the brass bolts – not iron which the salt water rusted – that held the ship together were exposed.

Any one of you who started reading this must by now realize, since this column is going nowhere, that you “bought a pig in a poke.” Back in time several hundred years, a poke was a bag smaller than a sack, and young piglets were often brought to market in them. Since it was well known how hard it is to catch a little pig, they were reluctant to open the poke right there in the middle of the market. The customer often didn’t know what he’d bought until he got home with it, and found perhaps that he had purchased a runt.

Another complication of this is “a cat in a sack.” Those sellers of pork, knowing that opening the bag often didn’t happen, sometimes put a cat in the bag. And that’s where the expression: “Don’t let the cat out of the bag” came from.

I didn’t have much of anything to let out of the bag this week.

Obviously.

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