'Virgil had grown up in Marshall, Minnesota, sixty miles north of Bluestem, as the crow flies, or eighty miles if the crow were driving a pickup.'
Made me laugh, as I'm sure it did you. Although the image of a crow sitting in the driver's seat of a pickup amused me, it wasn't what was foremost in my mind after reading that sentence and the remainder of the paragraph. Nope, I was thinking, Where did the term "As the crow flies" come from? I know what it means, the shortest route between two given places, but who came up with that? Especially since, if you've watched crows fly you know this: their flight patterns aren't especially straight. More like swooping arcs as they're looking for food. Because I could keep reading until I found the answer to the crow question, I pulled out my copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable; a Treasury of Words That Have A Tale to Tell - of course I have one of these - and look up As The Crow Flies. I learned that like so many common phrases, there is much speculation about the true origin of this one. The earliest known citation of the phrase is in an article written by W. Kenrick in 1767 for The London Review Of English And Foreign Liturature. He wrote:
'The Spaniard, if on foot, always travels as the crow flies, which the openness and dryness of the country permits; neither rivers nor the steepest mountains stop his course, he swims over the one and scales the other.'
Have you heard of a crow road? I hadn't until I read up on the crow flying business. The term 'the crow road' has long been used in Scotland to denote the most direct route and was even mentioned in an early 16th century document as a means of reducing the costs of road maintenance, by eliminating numerous winding roads.
Still don't know why they used a crow and not some other bird. Maybe because there were so many of them to observe?
I bet you didn't see that one coming.
Centuries ago there was a popular "entertainment" called badger-baiting or drawing the badger, where spectators bet money on badgers and dogs pitted against each other. Awful business and easy to see how the term 'badgered to death' could come about from it, however, it's speculated that this is not the term's genesis. It originally did not refer to badgers or dogs but rather a a metaphorical - and I think hilarious - reference to theatrical performers. Glimpse back to 1790, advice given by a Charles Dibdin in an article in the dramatic arts publication, The By-stander; or, Universal Weekly Expositor:
'It is always worth a manager's while to engage a performer for three years. The first he is a drudge; the second he is a servant of all work; the third badgered to death, and at length dismissed.'
No correlation to the term Americans who watch courtroom dramas on television are familiar with: badgering the witness. I suppose if you're at a live theater performance that is less than stellar you could feel like you're being, er, badgered.
A final phrase, one with an array of explanations as to its origin. Choose which one you think fits best. This phrase may have lost its popularity over the decades, but I recall hearing it from both of my grandmothers when I asked a question that was either inappropriate or too embarrassing to answer:
'Mind your Ps and Qs.'
1) Mind your pints and quarts. This is suggested as deriving from the practice of chalking up a tally of drinks in English pubs on a slate board. The person doing the serving had to make a clear mark of distinction between the quart drinks and pint drinks.
2) Advice to printers' apprentices to avoid confusing the backward-facing metal type lowercase Ps and Qs, or the same advice to children who were learning to write their letters. If you consider that in the early times of publishing that paper was an expensive commodity and that the setting of type was very time consuming, this explanation makes good sense. Especially when you factor in that type had to be set upside down and backwards. Easy to get letters out of whack if you weren't a hyper-vigilante typesetter. What is questionable about this one is why only the letters P and Q? What about B and D, or W and M? They are alike enough to be easily flipped over and around. "Mind your Bs and Ds" is solid sounding, don't you think? And "Mind your Ws and Ms", although a bit more of a mouthful, still has a nice ring to it.
3) Mind your pieds (feet) and queues (wigs). This is suggested to have been an instruction given by French dancing masters to their charges. However, there's not much evidence to support that the phrase really is from from France.
4) Another version of the 'advice to children' origin has it that 'Ps and Qs' derives from 'mind your pleases and thank-yous''. This is a strong forerunner for this phrase's origin but how Ps and Qs are translated to ''Pleases and thank-yous' is unclear - to the "experts", and to me.
I suppose I've left questions more unanswered than answered, haven't I? Even so, I think the long ago devised adages are fascinating and that dozens are still used without us knowing how they were derived.