I've always been fascinated by idioms and their origins. For example, "close but no cigar." Its origin, according to a little online research, is that carnival games of skill, particularly shooting games, once gave out cigars as prizes. A contestant who did not quite hit the target may have been close, but didn't get a cigar. Then there's sitting in "the cat bird seat." This idiom references mocking birds, who are sometimes referred to as cat birds. Mocking birds typically sit at the top of a tree, hence the cat bird seat is at the top where the view is good. And another favorite, "it's raining cats and dogs." The origin of this one isn't known for sure, but one theory is that in old England, cats and dogs would sleep on the roofs of houses, which were made of hay. When it rained, the roofs got slippery and the cats and dogs would slide off: thus, raining cats and dogs.
I mention my interest in idioms because my cousin Russ and I have come up with new one: "That's no bone under the barn" (the meaning of which is "I'm not lying"). This idiom and its origin will give you a little insight into my family.
For too many years to count, my sister and I have fiddled around with the Ouija board; or more accurately, a variation of the Ouija board. Having a more than healthy fear of tampering with "the beyond," Pat and I created our own version of a Ouija since the board itself is said to have, by those who claim knowledge of such things, tricky qualities (ie, the official Ouija board draws in evil spirits). So we use scrabble letters and a wine glass thinking we're circumnavigating trouble. We don't consider consultation of the Ouija terribly serious, but at the same time we don't want to mess with something other-worldly and potentially alarming, just in case.
Anyway, a few years ago Pat and I found ourselves with nothing much to do on a rainy evening and so dashed off to the Ouija. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't (don't ask me details of this phenomenon or whatever it is, that's a topic for another post; just go ahead and for the moment assume that for us, for a long time, it worked). After a rather extended stretch of positioning our fingers on the up-ended wine glass and staring at each other, the glass began to move. Our Ouija spirits that night, among other things, told us that one of our long lost cousins had been murdered and was buried under a barn on some family property. The cousin, who I'll henceforth refer to as "M," had been missing for 30 years, simply up and vanished one day never to be heard from again. We shared this newfound information with family members who, understandably, thought we were nuts.
Some weeks later another cousin on the opposite end of the family, Russ, stopped in for a visit. With great excitement and much hand-waving, my sister and I told Russ that we believed "M" to be buried under the old family barn. Russ became serious and said: "I think I've seen bones under that old barn," which at this point in its architectural life was little more than a crumbling foundation. Like miners hearing there's gold in them-thar hills, Pat, Russ and I jumped into our cars and raced to the old barn several miles away.
For the next hour I, being the terrier of the family, crawled around under the structure, pawing through moss and stone and weeds and who knows what all. Russ sat outside providing instructions on where he thought he saw the bones, and my sister sat atop the foundation, smoking cigarettes and offering lofty though unhelpful advice. Finally, just as I was about to give up, I emerged, holding a thigh bone high in one hand, my face dirt-streaked and triumphant. We had, at last, solved the mystery of "M's" disappearance! He had come to a grisly end in a shallow grave. To the Ouija! we cried, which we were sure would name his killer.
Now I do have some sensible members of my family. Russ's sister Judy informed us, as we displayed the bone on my dining room table for all to bear witness, that this was a cow bone. "It's not!" Pat and I insisted. "This is a bone from "M's" leg! The Ouija told us so!!" We even went so far as to take the bone to a local policeman, who frowned and patted our foolish shoulders. He took the bone away and was never heard from again. As far as I know the officer still has it, is probably using the bovine thigh as a doorstop or to stir his fireplace embers...because, of course, it was a cow bone. Russ, so like my father in his mischievous nature, confessed he planted the thing there when he heard through the family grapevine of our Ouija encounter. The date of the bone excavation, which my sister and I failed to notice at the time, was Halloween.
This ridiculous tale has now become folklore in our tribe, Pat and I the simpleminded foils of our cousin's good humor. While we look back on the incident with fondness, these days when Russ's words seem suspicious, I squint and ask, "This isn't a bone under the barn, is it?"
Hence the birth of a new idiom, at least among my kin.
I have a secret hope that "that's no bone under the barn" will go viral, and someday will appear online as an official idiom. If it does, I implore the writers to get the facts straight, even though my sister and I will appear to be in the league of Dumb and Dumber when they do. Should Googlers roll their eyes at the explanation, c'est la vie. If nothing else, Pat and Russ and I will have been contributors to American vernacular.
(And by the way, "M" has been located...he's alive and well and living in Washington State. Since this discovery, Pat and I have elected to steer clear of the Ouija. Its spirit informants seem...unreliable.)