Where’d it come from #50
Stick in the mud
This phrase derives its meaning from the imagery it evokes. Imagine that your feet are stuck in heavy, thick clay or mud. You’d be unable to move forward, or in any other direction for that matter—hence our use of “stick in the mud” in reference to those who are fuddy-duddies or unprogressive.
“Our new dean is truly a forward thinker, unlike his predecessor, who was a real stick in the mud.”
Ballin’ the Jack
Those who are familiar with this phrase probably know that it’s the name of dance. It was first performed on film in For Me and My Gal (1942), starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. You may have even seen it in the obscure horror/comedy Haunted Honeymoon (1986), performed by Gilda Radner and Dom Deluise (who was dressed in drag for the performance).
The song and dance were created by Chris Smith and Jim Burris in 1913. Their lyrics describe the dance:
First you put your two knees close up tight,
Then you sway ‘em to the left, then you sway ‘em to the right,
Step around the floor kind of nice and tight,
Then you twis’ around and twis’ around with all your might,
Stretch your lovin’ arms straight out in space
Then do the Eagle Rock with style and grace
Swing your foot way ‘round then bring it back,
Now that’s what I call “Ballin’ the Jack.”
While no one knows for sure where Smith and Burris got the name “Ballin’ the Jack,” the most likely conclusion is that they borrowed it from railroad slang. To ball the jack was to go at top speed regardless of signals or warnings—“the jack” being the locomotive and “ballin’” being the fastest speed that it could go. Smith and Burris no doubt convey this sense of “full speed ahead” in their lively dance.
This term immediately calls to mind the game of baseball and the art of pitching, but its origin is less clear. Though a number of theories have been put forth, there are few that stand out as the most probable, if not the most entertaining.
The first is more practical and straightforward and suggests that the game of baseball borrowed it from the rough-and-tumble sport of rodeo riding. Just as the bulls are held in a pen before being released into the arena, so are the pitchers in the game of baseball.
A more humorous, yet less plausible, explanation involves big league manager Casey Stengel, who once suggested that the name came from managers tiring of pitchers “shooting the bull” in the dugout. To solve the problem, managers simply sent the pitchers to their own pen where they wouldn’t disturb the rest of the team.
“He’s already walked four batters. I think it’s time that the manager turns to the bullpen for help.”
As much as we may not like to admit it, we’ve all been stumped at some point in time. The meaning is obvious; its origin not so much. This term actually has agricultural roots and refers to farming ploughs hitting low-lying tree stumps in the middle of a field. Needless to say, once it hit a stump, it was stuck.
From this imagery comes our present usage of the phrase anytime we’re stuck on a problem and unable to find an answer.
“I couldn’t figure out why my computer kept crashing. Despite all of my efforts, I was stumped.”