You Don’t Say: Volume 55
It’s a new year, that time when you get the sense that you can start over again, wipe away the mistakes of the past year and start with a clean slate. Some would say that there is an opportunity to go back to square one. Some things you can take as they come, some things you have to do cold turkey, even if it takes donkey’s years. But no matter what, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. These are some of the idioms and sayings that we’ve heard all our lives, about starting over, but do you know where they came from?
Clean slate: In the time of the Victorian era, British school children didn’t have paper notebooks. They were far too expensive. They learned to write and calculate by writing on slate tablets. So when the lesson was done, for better or worse, the slate would be wiped clean to do the next thing. Storekeepers also used slates to keep ledgers on their customers who, when they came in and paid off their accounts had their slate wiped clean.
Back to square one: This phrase unfortunately carries a negative stigma implying that things didn’t work out and you have to start all over again. The phrase, and it’s negative connotation seem to have come from board games of the 19th and 20th centuries, where landing on certain numbered squares may advance you to the heady heights of success, landing on a snake square could put you back to square one to start all over.
Cold turkey: Although you might appropriately label those goofy folks who indulge in polar bear swims to be cold turkeys, the phrase has come to mean starting a project or treatment with little or no preparation. It appears that it first surfaced in the novel, I, The Jury, by crime author Mickey Spillane, referring to the treatment of a dope-addict through the abrupt and total withdrawl of drugs.
Donkey’s Years: A phrase used frequently by my Grandmother who applied it to anything which took a very long period of time. Research seems to point to its origin in the phrase ‘donkey’s ears’ as the original phrase which refers to the great length of the creature’s ears. It’s easy to see how the “y” of donkey’s ears became “years” through rhyming slang similar to Cockney slang.
It ain’t over till (or until) the fat lady sings: One can’t help but see the reference to opera in this phrase, but where did it come from? According to Wikipedia, the phrase references the stereotypically overweight sopranos of the opera.
In Richard Wagner‘s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen and the last part, Götterdämmerung, is typically the one used in depictions accompanying reference to the phrase. The “fat lady” is the valkyrie Brünnhilde, who is traditionally presented as a very buxom lady with horned helmet, spear and round shield (although Brünnhilde in fact wears a winged helmet. Her aria lasts almost twenty minutes and leads directly to the end of the opera.
Thus Götterdämmerung depicts the end of the world of the Norse gods, and it is truly over “when the fat lady sings.”
On the other hand, I also like the explanation offered by Debbie Pollard of Yorkshire, UK who said that the phrase has its origins in the game of billiards. The black eight ball was commonly referred to as the “fat lady” so no matter how bad the game is going for a competitor, the game wasn’t over until the fat lady “sank.”