Yesterday we looked at phrases and expressions that use the names of towns and cities in the UK. Today we take a look at those citing places around the rest of the world – a few of which mention a certain Italian city …
A Bronx cheer: a sound of contempt or derision made by blowing through closed lips, usually with the tongue protruding (like the proverbial raspberry). Dating back to the early 20th century, the phrase probably originated at sporting events in the Bronx area (the northernmost borough of New York City), and it was first seen in print in the Bridgeport Telegram in a report by none other than Damon Runyon of a football game in October 1921.
Not for all the tea in China: not at any price (because China was known to produce tea in huge quantities).
A road to Damascus moment: when you have a great and sudden change in your ideas or beliefs. It comes from the famous occasion when Saint Paul converted to Christianity while he was heading to Damascus to persecute the Christians.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark: used to describe corruption or a situation in which something is wrong. It’s a direct quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, said by Marcellus when he thinks something’s up because the ghost of Hamlet’s father has appeared several times.
Dunkirk spirit: what people draw on when they pull together to get through a difficult time. The phrase came into use following the evacuation of allied troops across the English Channel by flotillas of pleasure boats, working barges and other civilian craft at the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940.
Houston, we have a problem: used humorously to report any kind of problem. This is Hollywood’s version of what was radioed by the Apollo 13 moon mission to its command base in Houston after an oxygen tank explosion aboard the spacecraft in April 1970. Command module pilot John “Jack” Swigert called Houston after the little mishap, and his exact words were: “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”
I’m from Missouri: you need proof, or you need to be shown, as in: “Show me: I’m from Missouri.” The phrase comes from Missouri’s nickname, “The Show Me State,” which it earned because of the devotion of its people to simple common sense. In 1899, Rep. Willard D. Vandiverr, a scholar, writer and lecturer with a passing resemblance to Mark Twain, was speaking to Philadelphia’s Five O’Clock Club. Questioning the accuracy of an earlier speaker’s remarks, he explained: “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
In a New York minute: very fast. ‘Cos everything happens quickly in the Big Apple. The phrase is said to have been coined in Texas in the late 1960s, when it was first claimed that a New Yorker does in an instant what a Texan would do in a whole minute.
A Philadelphia lawyer: a shrewd, astute, highly-skilled attorney (because back in the 18th century members of the Philadelphia bar were widely considered to be the best trained in the American colonies and exceptionally skilled in the law and rhetoric).
When in Rome … (or, more fully: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do): an advisory to follow the conventions of the area where you’re staying or visiting. The story goes that Saint Monica and her son, Saint Augustine, who both lived in Milan, planned to visit Rome, where they discovered that Saturday was observed as a fast day – unlike in their hometown, where it wasn’t. They consulted Saint Ambrose, who said: “When I am here (in Milan) I do not fast on Saturday, when in Rome I do fast on Saturday.”
Fiddling while Rome burns: occupying oneself with trivial matters and neglecting priorities during a crisis. Legend has it that while a fire was raging through the city of Rome, the emperor Nero played his lyre and even wrote a song about the fire’s destruction, showing utter neglect for his people and his empire.
All roads lead to Rome: a variety of means and methods will yield the same outcome. The phrase seems to be a modern reworking of a medieval expression. The 12th-century French theologian Alain deLille wrote “Mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam” (A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome) in Liber Parabolarum. Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe provides us with the earliest known English source: “Right as diverse pathes leden the folk the righte wey to Rome.” In about 300 BC, the Romans started building long straight roads that connected all the major cities with Rome but not with each other. This network of 29 roads connected 113 provinces of the empire, with Rome at its center. So it was true then that “all roads led to Rome.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day: you need plenty of time to create great things. It is the common English translation of a medieval French phrase, “Rome ne fu[t] pas faite toute en un jour”, found in the collection of proverbs Li Proverbe au Vilain published in about 1190. The expression really took off in the 16th century when John Heywood listed it (in English) in his A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (c. 1538), and Queen Elizabeth I referenced the expression in Latin in an address in Cambridge in 1563.
A Saigon moment: when people realize something has gone terribly wrong and they will lose or fail. The term presumably dates back to the capture of Saigon (also known as the fall of Saigon) by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong on 30 April 1975.
Stockholm syndrome: the tendency of a hostage to bond, identify or sympathize with his or her captor. The Swedish criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot originally coined the term to explain the aftermath of a bank robbery in Stockholm in 1973. The robber Jan-Erik Olsson took four bank employees hostage and remained with his accomplice, Oloffson, inside the bank with the four hostages during a six-day stand-off with police. After the hostages’ release, they were found to have developed strong emotional bonds with their captors. The hostages reported that Olsson and Oloffson treated them kindly and did not physically harm them. They defended their captors and refused to testify against them.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas: any scandalous activities that happen away from home shouldn’t be discussed with others afterwards. Or, more simply put, something needs to be kept secret. It originates from the official advertising slogan of Las Vegas (“What Happens Here, Stays Here”), a popular vacation destination with a reputation for hedonism. The slogan was first cooked up in 2003 at a brainstorming meeting in the Las Vegas tourism department of the ad agency R&R Partners.
Goodnight Vienna: it’s all over. It comes from the title of a romantic 1932 operetta, with book and lyrics by Eric Maschwitz and music by George Posford. According to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch Phrases: “As a [catch phrase] it has been described by Cyril Whelan, 1975, as ‘a pen-knife phrase, in that it can be put to a variety of different uses – often apparently contradictory. “If the officer catches us up to this, it’s Good Night, Vienna, for the lot of us.” … “So I met the girl. We had a few drinks. Back to her place, and Good Night, Vienna”.’ Its appeal and currency are due only to the fact that it’s mildly pleasing to the tongue in a racy sort of way and bounces quite happily on the ear of the listener.'”
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