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When Pigs Fly

Next week, September 9th, we celebrate When Pigs Fly Day. It’s a day to remind us all that every now and then miracles do happen. I do believe in miracles, so this is a special holiday for me. After all, horses fly, remember Pegasus? Squirrels and ants fly, remember Rocky J. Squirrel and Atom Ant? And then we couldn’t forget about buffalo. Duh. Have you ever had buffalo wings? 

When my sons were young and gullible, we lived in the great state of Texas. Every day as I drove them to school, we passed a lot of farms and cattle land. One such pasture contained a herd of buffalo. Actually, I’m not sure how many you need to make it a certifiable herd, but there were five or six of the monstrous beasts in a field. Every day both boys would comment about the status of each animal as we passed. They said things like,

“Oh look, Mommy, that buffalo is eating his breakfast,” and

“Oh Mommy, did you see that buffalo’s horns? Wow, they are big.”

The novelty of seeing real, live buffalo was a big part of our school day routine. One day, the boys were squabbling with each other like brothers do, and I could tell it was going to escalate into a full-fledged fight if I didn’t do something quick. So I did something.

I pointed to the buffalo field and said, “Hey boys, look at that buffalo’s wings.”

We had gone out to eat the previous week and both boys had gorged themselves with buffalo wings. They loved them.

This announcement about the source of their recent indulgence snapped them out of kill-my-brother mode and all eyeballs were on the pasture that contained the fierce critters and their avian appendages. I slowed down so that they both could take a good, long gander.

My analytical, practical son promptly retorted, “Buffalos don’t have wings!”

To which I replied, “Are you sure? Look harder.”

My imaginative, kind-hearted son, after a few minutes of intense scrutiny of the animals, said, “I think I see them, but doesn’t it hurt them when restaurants cut off their wings?”

He was starting to work up a tear.

“Oh, no,” I explained. “Those wings just fall off and then each buffalo grows a new pair. It doesn’t hurt them one bit.”

To this day, I’m pretty sure both of my sons, when confronted with a herd of buffalo (as if it happens often) will look for their wings and smile.

And as for me, well, I never revealed the truth about where buffalo wings come from. I figured that it was something they would figure out on their own someday. I know, I know…bad Mommy, bad Mommy, bad Mommy!

Wings on a buffalo are just about as whacked out as wings on a pig. Where on earth did such quirky expressions come from? Well, I’m here to tell you because I am curious about stuff like this. It doesn’t keep me up at night, but still. Here are a few idioms that we all use every day, and the origin of each.

When Pigs Fly is an example of an adynaton, which is a figure of speech that is so overstated or unrealistic that it can’t possibly be true. The earliest example was found in 1616 in an English-Latin dictionary named “A Shorte Dictionarie for Yonge Begynners.” The expression was used as a sarcastic rebuttal to an overly optimistic statement. The meaning and use haven’t changed much since then, have they?

There are two theories about the origin of this idiom. In the first the term “cut” refers to showing or showcasing, as in “he cuts a fine figure.” The word “mustard” is a metaphor for wit and vitality. As a result, if someone “can’t cut the mustard,” it signifies they are lacking the traits of a high-caliber person.

The second theory is more literal. I’ve never tried to do it, but harvesting mustard plants can be a tough job. They grow in dense clumps and are tough and stringy. In the mustard biz, the uncut plants are useless, as are those that fail at trying to harvest them.

I love the origin of this one. Back during the Middle Ages when a knight competed in a jousting tournament, it was customary for said knight to dedicate his performance to a special lady. To demonstrate that he was her “champion,” he would wear the lady’s personal effect, like a scarf or a ribbon around his arm. This was a public display of his romantic intentions toward the lucky chick. A bit like the plethora of tags on NASCAR vehicles, huh?

If you are over-the-top excited about how great something or someone is, you might say that they are the best thing since sliced bread. I say this all the time. Just ask Capt’n Clean.

In 1928, the Chillicothe Baking Company was the first to sell bread that was pre-sliced. Their slogan was “The greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” Hmm, doesn’t have much punch, does it?

In 1962, Red Skelton (I adore the man) helped them out when he was being interviewed about the future of television. In one of his responses during the interview, he stated, “Don’t worry about television. It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Genius, absolute genius.

This one has competing theories too. The first dates back to Victorian times when drainage on city streets was poor or non-existent. When it rained often street animals would drown so that when people got back on the street after storms, dead cats and dogs would be strewn everywhere. It appeared as though it had literally been raining cats and dogs.

The second theory is similar to the first. Again, during Victorian times, there were no roof gutters. During the night pets (cats and dogs) slept on window eaves. When it rained heavily, the water from the roof washed them off the eaves and the poor things literally fell down with torrents of water from the sills. I’ll bet they wished they had wings like their compadre critters, the pig and the buffalo.

If this bit of idiom trivia had been on Jeopardy, I would have missed it. When you pass something with flying colors it means that you pass with distinction, like getting a 1600 on the SAT test or winning Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions.

The term has nautical roots. During wartime, when ships returned from battle if they had been victorious, they would display their colors, or flags, as they entered their home port.

and finally…

I know this isn’t really an idiom, but I thought you’d like to know that buffalo don’t really have wings. The popular spicy snack really comes from chickens. In 1964 buffalo wings became popular at the Anchor Bar, in…wait for it…Buffalo, New York.

Sorry boys.

Your mom doesn’t eat much bread regardless of whether it is sliced or not and rarely uses mustard. She never lets the family pets sleep on window sills and likes to wear a variety of colors. But, your mom believes that miracles can happen especially on days that pigs fly and she wears her heart on her sleeve when it comes to both of her sons. As far as wings on buffalo…well. your mother has a very vivid imagination.

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This work by Anel “Pookie” Ryan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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