Episode 21 – Who Let The Cats Out?

In this salty show Shea and Aaron get their Idiomocracy on and open a whole can of worms that Pliny tries to poison.

Welcome to Interesting If True, episode 21, the one where we’re finally old enough to drink!

I’m your host this week, Shea, and with me is… Aaron.

I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that adding salt is basically just sprinkling really specific, tiny, gravel on your food.

Round Table

Now that we can pull a stool up at the bar it’s time for the glorious return of the Round Table… or IP Table as the case may be until 2020 sobers up.

Being a fully grown, worldly podcast, we’ve got a few things to announce.

First, the return of the round table, which is, I think, going pretty well so far.

Second is that we’ll be recording an episode 4 More Beers this weekend, so look for that in your podcast feed soon! Updates on live shows are pending some Slack conversations but we’ll let you know as soon as we know.

Now that we’ve got a back catalog of sorts we’re also going to start properly promoting the show so make sure you give us some love on the Twitters, Facebooks, or wherever else you can! We’ll be posting fun stuff and hope to interact with all of you. Speaking of ways to interact with the show, leave us a voicemail at (513) 760–0463 and don’t forget to let us know if it’s ok to play on the air.

We’re also going to be visiting other studios and maybe, just maybe, dragging some guests back with us. More on that in the coming weeks.

With all of that out of the way, Shea, what are you drinking?

Idioms For Idiots

An idiom is a phrase that is common to a certain population. We use them every day, sometimes without even realizing that what we’re saying is nonsensical without the implied and widely accepted meaning behind it. What you might find Interesting If True (look I used the name of the podcast in a story!) is that most idioms had literal meanings back before time obscured this bit of history. I’m going to be teaching you listeners some of the origins of our favorite phrases.

Barking up the wrong tree might be the easiest to figure out without using the internet, so lets start there. Of course now it describes when someone is trying to achieve something but they’re doing it in the wrong way. As you can assume it originally referred to a hunting dog literally barking up the wrong tree after its prey had moved on.

The phrase fly off the handle currently means to lose your temper suddenly and unexpectedly. This makes perfect sense because before mass production and safety standards occasionally your axe handle would come loose and fly off the handle as you were chopping wood. Makes perfect sense why we would now use the phrase as a way to describe risky behavior with unpredictable results.

An old nautical term has weaved its way into our language, feeling under the weather. Nowadays it means you’re not feeling 100% or you’ve caught a cold. But in the past when a sailor was feeling ill, he would go beneath the bow, which is the front part of the boat. This would hopefully protect him from adverse conditions, as he was literally under the bad weather that could further sicken him. Therefore, a sailor who was sick could be described as being “under the weather.”

To turn a blind eye is to refuse a known truth, you can see many examples in world wide politics. This, however, has a great story to how it came about, we can actually pinpoint who said it first and when. Horatio Nelson was a British Admiral in the late 17th century before he became a national hero, during his service he took French shot to the face and lost most of his vision in his right eye. Years later in 1801 he led an attack alongside Admiral Sir Hyde Parker in the Battle of Copenhagen. Parker communicated to Nelson at one point, via flags, that he needed to retreat and disengage. Nelson, however, was convinced that he could prevail if they pushed onward. Nelson then, holding the telescope to his blind eye, pretended not to see the signal—making a sly comment to a fellow officer about reserving the right to use his blind eye every now and again. The British did win the battle in the end FYI.


In the early 1700s, while working on his anti French play Liberty Asserted, English dramatist John Dennis invented a device that imitated the sound of thunder. The device was very similar to how we make the sound now, a suspended large metal sheet that is then struck with a mallet. Unfortunately the play flopped. Soon after, Dennis noted that another play in the same theater was using his sound-effects device. He angrily exclaimed, “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play.” The story got around London, and the idiom to steal someone’s thunder was born.


Here is a double! Straight from the horse’s mouth and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth come from the same antiquated practice. From the horse’s mouth meaning you have information directly from the source which is the highest authority, and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth meaning to find fault with something that has been received as a gift or favor. You see before carfax and police reports the only way to assure you we’re getting a good ride was to look in its mouth. According to the internet and veterinarians you can tell alot about a horse by looking at its mouth, age, health, diet, etc… So when purchasing a horse the buyer would often look straight in the horse’s mouth. Also, as it is today, it’s rude to inspect a gift for faults as it would be to look the gift horse in the mouth.

Giving the cold shoulder means to coldly turn your back on someone which seems like it was how the phrase originated, but you would be wrong. Etymologists think the phrase originated from medieval etiquette. After a feast, hosts in England would subtly signal that the meal was over and it was time to GTFO by serving a cold slice of pork, mutton, or beef shoulder. A nice little snack for the ride home, I kind of wish we would bring this one back, I always want a sandwich… And to go home.

A really weird idiom that swapped meaning as time rolled on was blood is thicker than water, today we take that meaning as family/race/nationality is stronger than anything else. Originally the idiom was a bit longer “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” with covenant referring to friendship. In other words, it was your friends—your blood brothers, if you will—who were with you through thick and thin.

That’s wrong… Or rather not entirely backed by proof. I decided to dig into the original idiom and I can’t find any early references. But, according to H.C Trumbull in his 1893 book The Blood Covenant – A Primitive Rite And Its Bearings On Scripture:

We, in the West, are accustomed to say that “blood is thicker than water” ; but the Arabs have the idea that blood is thicker than milk, than a mother’s milk. With them, any two children nourished at the same breast are called “milk-brothers,” or “sucking brothers”; and the tie between such is very strong… But the Arabs hold that brothers in the covenant of blood are closer than brothers at a common breast; that those who have tasted each other’s blood are in a surer covenant than those who have tasted the same milk together ; that “blood-lickers,” as the blood-brothers are sometimes called, are more truly one than “milk-brothers,” or “sucking brothers”; that, indeed, blood is thicker than milk, as well as thicker than water.


We can draw some pretty obvious conclusions from that so maybe I wasn’t entirely wrong.


I could be at this until the cows come home so I’ll wrap up for now. I hope the proof was in the pudding and you all learned something today. If not, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, we’ll be back next week.


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Pliny the Patron Poisoner

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Following up from last week’s mentions of Pliny we’re left with a few remaining factoids that should all be taken with a grain of salt…

For example, Pliny’s cure for… all poisons apparently.

From Pliny’s Naturalis Historia from 77 A.D., he says:

After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.

Difficult names aside you may notice some salty language that I just used… no, not that salty. Salt!

From the sources I could find all agreed that, insofar as anyone can tell, Pliny thereby coined the term, “with a grain of salt”… kind of.

As translated above he said “addito salis grano” or “after having added a grain of salt” whereas the phrase we’re accustomed to seeing now would be, to overlay English grammar, “cum grano salis”.

Interestingly, the Latin word “sal” means “salt” but also means “wit”, which changes the phrase to “with a grain of wit” or “with a grain of caution”.

I should mention that these translations and phrases are the American idioms. In British English the phrase is “with a grain of salt, pip pip, cheerio, keep a stiff upper lift, calm, and cary on Gov’na” I believe in full.

An alternate account of the history of the phrase goes to Roman general Pompey who was trying to make himself immune to poison by ingesting small amounts of it, each dose with a little salt to help swallow the, what I assume to be, powdered Iocaine.

Unfortunately, Mithridatism—or dosing oneself with non-lethal amounts of a poison in pursuit of immunity—is not a great plan. In legend, the king of Pontus Mithridates V feared poisoning after his mother assassinated his father with poison. He began dosing himself like Vizzini until the inconceivable happened, he built up a lethal dose of…something, and died. Or so the Roman legend goes. As for the… you know… truth, mithridatism is dumb and hardly ever works. While it is possible to build up an immunity to some stuff most often, taking micro-doses of poisons will either make you mildly ill until the substance is flushed out of the body, or stay in the body and build up until you die. Basically, that’s not how your immune system works, and even if it was, heavy metals aren’t infectious biological agents.

Moving last Latin and Greek the earliest English reference I could find was in John Tapp’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, from 1647 wherein he said of the books

This is to be taken with a grain of salt.

No doubt we’d have gotten along as well as two folks separated by nearly 400 years can. The sources I found all politely decline to explain his meaning, but I think it’s pretty clear.

Centuries later in 1908 America. The Athenæum, a literary journal, said:

Our reasons for not accepting the author’s pictures of early Ireland without many grains of salt.

Not long thereafter the English version of the phrase sees print again in England in F. R. Cowell’s Cicero & The Roman Republic in 1948:

A more critical spirit slowly developed, so that Cicero and his friends took more than the proverbial pinch of salt before swallowing everything written by these earlier authors”

Now, regardless of the origin, the phrase is synonymous with “what about I’m about to say is nonsense and you should treat it as such” or as we like to call it, most of my stories.

For those wondering how much to take something with, a pinch of salt, or any spice, is generally considered the amount that can be easily picked up between the thumb and forefinger. With granulated salt specifically, this is about 60mg.


I’m Shea, and this week I learned that a vanilla soy latte is a type of 3 bean soup.

I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.

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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.

The opinions, views, and nonsense expressed in this show are those of the hosts only and do not represent any other people, organizations, or lifeforms.
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