Etymologies: “Be there or be square”

be there or be square: if you are not present at said event, you are not part of the ‘in crowd’


The term originates in 18th century England, during the industrial revolution. It relates to a law (1) passed in 1782 stating that “when the head of the man turns square, no further work shall they dare”. The figurate language of the law referred to the fact that if a worker became disoriented or mentally incapacitated from over work, they would be given the rest of the day off, along with pay. Workers soon found a loophole in the law, and began wearing boxes on their heads when going to work (2). Judges at the time ruled that according to the letter of the law, these workers had to be given the prescribed amount of time off. Soon knowledge of this tactic became widespread and people knew they had two options when it came to work: to be there or to be square. The current meaning came about when factory owners began a slew of propaganda, giving ‘being square’ a negative connotation. However this didn’t have the effect they’d hoped and eventually the law had to be reworded in order to avoid the loophole (3).


1 – The “Inverse Square Law”.

2 – In fact the term loophole originates from the holes these men would carve into the boxes in order to see, literally ‘keeping them in the loop’.

3 – Ironically leading to many box making factory owners losing their jobs.


Etymologies: “Highway Robbery”

Highway Robbery: an outlandishly high price

This term originates from the early 1920’s when highways were still movable (1). In those days highways were set on large wheels and relocated to areas of need based on traffic (2). A problem arose when robbers began to literally ‘rob highways’, stealing them and moving them to remote hiding spots. Any cars left on the highway were looted and then sent on their way. The highways themselves were held for ransom; robbers were able to ask for considerable amounts of money as the highways were necessary for transportation to and from the emerging urban areas. The ridiculous size of these ransoms became associated with the term ‘highway robbery’ and soon any large price was compared to a ‘highway robbery’. The president at the time eventually solved the problem with the Federal Aid Highway Act, ingeniously creating highways that were affixed to the ground (3).


1 – For this reason highways were not given names, only numbers, since they were not permanent. This tradition continues today.

2 – At times this would mean that other roads were blocked off by the newly placed road, leading to the term ‘roadblock’.

3 – The Act was famously argued for with the often misquoted line “It’s my way or the highway will be stolen”.

Etymologies: “Bigwig”

Bigwig: an important or influential person; someone of a high status


The term bigwig originated in the 17th century, when the short lived fad of wig-wearing (1) was at its peak. It became fashionable for people to shave their heads (2) and replace their hair with wigs; in this way they could sport a style they might not be able to naturally grow. It was seen as a triumph of man’s ingenuity over nature. However hair to make up these wigs was quite rare and expensive. Hair was sold by the strand and it was not uncommon for the lower classes to be seen wearing wigs consisting of only several strands of hair. The rich folk on the other hand were able to purchase large wigs made up of thousands of strands of hair and very soon the term ‘bigwig’ became associated with the very wealthy. This fad faded away as quickly as it had come with the advent of the top hat, however it lives on in the large ceremonial wigs seen in the British courts.


1 – “Wig” is actually a slang term, which originated as a sarcastic name for early proto-wigs which were made of straw, and looked very similar to wigs made of twigs.

2 – The term ‘buzz cut’ for a shaved head has its origins here. People would have to shave their heads in order to wear wigs, and since this was the popular thing to do at the time it was called the ‘buzz’ cut.

© 2009 –

Etymologies: “Flipping Someone The Bird”

flipping someone the bird: showing someone your middle finger; an insult in many Western cultures


This term originated with a slightly different wording; originally “flipping someone’s bird”.  In the medieval ages it was common for kings and lords to have pet birds (1) in their homes.  These birds were quite rare and expensive, thus they were a sign of wealth; they were trained to sit on a horizontal metal rod for visitors to see.  It became an extreme show of disrespect to literally “flip” someone’s bird: striking it with a middle finger so that it spun around and hung upside down (2).  Eventually simply flicking the air with one’s middle finger was enough to suggest this disrespectful act and insult/threaten another lord.  It is believed that the term was reworded over time – as actual bird flipping became rarer – and later generations copied the gesture without knowing its origin.  They assumed that the middle finger was ‘the bird’ in question.


1 – Of course not just any bird would do, they specifically kept a rare breed of owl.  It was originally an acronym that meant: only with lords.  Today the term has been generalized to all members of the genus.

2 – Owls, like all nocturnal animals, fall asleep immediately when they find themselves upside down.  An example of this can be seen in caves full of upside down sleeping bats.

Etymologies: “High Brow Humour”

high brow humour: humour that is intelligent, classy, refined


The term high brow humour originated in early Victorian era comedy clubs (1).  The social elite felt that it was undignified to show appreciation by clapping their hands; this was seen as boorish and only fit for the lower classes.  Thus many of the aristocrats showed their appreciation for a good joke by repeatedly raising and lowering their eye-brows vigorously.  Over time, jokes that these aristocrats found funny , and thus raised their brows, began to be called “high brow”.  The term has survived into modern times.


1 – Actually at the time they were called “Yukkers”, hence the phrase “yuk yuk”.