Fishing in Troubled Waters

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Casting your rod fruitlessly? Not getting a bite where the majority has congregated—in the placid, more easily accessible locales? Try fishing in troubled waters instead. It’s not without risk however. Doing so questions your motives and your judgment, by “looking for trouble” or “putting yourself into a bad or confused situation.” There are also the consequences. A pretty kettle of fish, they say describing a state of confusion or disorderliness ensuing from an ill-thought out venture. It needn’t be that way. A pretty “kettle” or a kiddle once referred to “a net placed in a river to catch fish.” Long before becoming a sardonic remark, a pretty kettle of fish simply described freshly caught salmon served at a riverside picnic (early 1700s). It also offers sufficient incentive to occasionally fish in troubled waters. The phrase entered the language around 1568 from the belief that fish bite more readily in rough waters. As in life itself, though things are turbulent on the surface, by going more deeply into the situation you might well end up with a substantial catch. You might even go home with a kettle of fish—one that is really pretty.

Measuring Up

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What are the criteria by which to judge your actions? Most people look outside themselves. Milestones (c.1746) are pillars set up on highways to mark the miles and the progress you have made. Benchmarks (c.1842) were made by surveyors, who cut them into rock or some other durable material to determine altitude.

Others prefer using their colleagues as sounding boards, providing immediate feedback, like structures that reflect sound back to the audience. But what could be more material than touchstones (15thC), smooth black siliceous stones once used to test the purity of gold and silver alloys, assayers analyzing the mark left on it, to ascertain its authenticity?

Most of the time, you operate by rule of thumb, relying on your own experience, making a rough approximation, rather than a precise measurement. The thumb, it turns out, is pretty accurate. During the second half of the 17th century, its breadth was used in measurements to approximate one inch. In French the same word, pouce, is used for both “thumb” and “inch.” Tailors noted that “Twice around the thumb is once around the wrist,” and brewers were known to commonly dip their thumb into the vat to test the temperature.

Being under someone’s thumb put them at your disposal or made you completely subservient to them, like the gladiators in the Roman amphitheater whose fate was determined by the showing of the thumbs of the spectators. In 1782 a British judge ruled that a man had the right to beat his wife providing the stick he used was no thicker than his thumb. To this rule of thumb, we can only say thumbs up (c.1600)—how the Ancients signified rejection or disapproval; thumbs down not becoming synonymous with negative sentiment until the early 20th century.

Doggone It!

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Find yourself in the doghouse again, “in disgrace, and out of favor?” How in the world did you end up there? Many attribute it to J.M. Barrie’s who in his play Peter Pan (1904) encouraged Mr. Darling to take to that particular domicile as penance until his children returned from Never-Never Land. More likely, the phrase is American in origin, a thoroughly practical application—there being no better place to banish a dog who has misbehaved. What put you out of favor? Apparently, you’re out of touch with your inner pup—a deep-felt need to come to grips with your animal nature. Try taking a deep breath to bring you back to your roots—the Latin anima, “the physical breath” or “life force” itself. Psychologist, Carl Jung, thought it synonymous with your unconscious mind and your true self. It’s appropriately feminine, you having drawn your first breath thanks to your mother. It comes from the Indo-European roots ane from which animal and animation also originate. As to the animus you feel towards others, that’s quite a different matter—it’s strictly masculine. To the Romans it spelled mind, spirit, and courage—all allegedly masculine virtues. Man’s penchant to carry things to an extreme, let it get out of hand. By 1605 it contributed to your animosity, the hostility you feel towards others, and by 1816, the animus you bore them. You’re barking up the wrong tree (c.1813) however, by allowing your animus to dictate your life. Attributing your actions to your animal instincts is to allow things of little consequence to govern those of real importance—letting the tail wag the dog (c.1900).