Behind the Greenscreen
Why is a lazy person called a "goldbricker"? Why is the off-stage chamber where guests wait before their TV appearances called the "green room"? Why do we say someone speaking quickly is talking a "blue streak"?
Let's take out our crayons and color in the origins of these multi-hued expressions ...
--Goldbrick: Until the mid-19th century, this term meant just what you'd think: a brick made of solid gold. But during the western gold booms of the middle 1800s, unscrupulous mine promoters often presented bricks of lead coated in gold to gullible eastern speculators as evidence of their mines' output.
Mine Promoter: "Here's a brick of gold from my mine."
Eastern Speculator: "Looks great. Here's $10,000."
Of course, most of these investors never saw their money again.
So by the 1880s, the meaning of "gold brick" had turned from positive to negative. It now referred to anything that was a sham or counterfeit, like a "wooden nutmeg" or a "pig in a poke."
During the early 1900s, "goldbrick" shifted again in meaning, but retained its concept of deceit, when it emerged in military slang as a verb meaning "to pretend to work."
--Greenroom: Etymologists trace the origin of this term for an actors' lounge to what was called "the assembly room" at London's Dorset Garden theater during the late 1600s.
We don't know whether this room was painted green or decorated with green plants. But when the Dorset merged with the Drury Lane theater in 1682 and shifted its performances to the Drury, the Dorset actors complained about missing their "greenroom" at the Dorset (along with a lot of other things, like not getting a larger percentage of the international box office gross).
We do know that, by the early 1700s, "greenroom" had become a generic term for a holding room in a theater.
--Blue streak: Early European settlers of North America found the intensity and frequency of its lightning storms, well ... striking. Seeing a bolt of lightning instantaneously zap a barn left two key impressions on pioneers: Lightning bolts were speedy and they were bluish in color.
So, by the early 1840s, anything that moved fast -- a horse, a train and a farmer fleeing lightning -- was said to be galloping, chugging or running "like a blue streak."
And when someone talked rapidly, like a mine promoter, for instance, he was said to be "talking a blue streak."
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.Copyright 2017 Creators Syndicate Inc.