Where’d it come from #59
When we speak of “wiggle room,” we do so quite obviously in reference to leeway. To grant a person “wiggle room” is to give them a bit of space in which to move. This phrase is often used figuratively. For instance, if the editor of your school newspaper typically puts a 500-word limit on articles, she could grant you some wiggle room on a more important story.
While the meaning is fairly straightforward, the origin might come as a surprise. In fact, “wiggle room” is rather recent. Safire’s Political Dictionary dates its first usage around the late 1970s, when it first appeared—of all places—in a Business Week article.
Legend has it that Hoek Hogan, a European farmer, was responsible for an incomprehensibly hideous creation.
The year was 1855. Apparently, farmer Hogan had bred a goat so smelly and ugly that people remember it today, honoring the poor creature with the phrase “Hogan’s goat,” which they use to refer to something that has been screwed up beyond all recognition.
“Don’t touch my car’s engine! You don’t know what you’re doing, and you will screw it up like Hogan’s goat.”
“Whites of their eyes”
In June 1775, Americans stood their ground against the British in a bloody fight that history knows as Bunker Hill. Even at this early stage in the war, the colonists (or Rebels, depending on which side you were on) had limited resources, one of which was gun powder.
To reserve this scarce and precious supply, infantry commanders urged their men to make each shot count. Col. William Prescott, in particular, ordered his troops to hold their fire until the British were practically on top of them, or as he put it, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”
If you’ve ever heard anything about Baltimore City in the mid nineteenth century, if you’ve ever read Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York or seen Martin Scorsese’s film by the same title, you’ve almost certainly heard of the Plug Uglies.
The Plug Uglies were a street gang comprised of members of the Know-Nothing party (an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic league of political confederates) who, quite frankly, had a penchant for vicious brawling.
Some historians speculate that the group’s name came from its members plug hats, which they stuffed with paper and pulled over their ears for additional protection against bludgeons from stones, brickbats, and other weapons native to their brand of street fighting.
Indeed, their prominent role in gang lore reached a near mythic status and made their name a symbol of criminal behavior in general.
“I would make more trips into the city if it weren’t for the Plug Ugly rabble. The odds of an assault or robbery are just too high.”