The first decade of the 20th century introduced a very rich variation of language into society while at the same time reshuffling old words and phrases to suit the new variation of people. Like any era, the transformative 1900s are just an exciting bricolage of past utterings and superstitions, smartened up to catchy openings such as “how’s tricks.” Though the phrase might put one in mind of 1950s guys and dolls, it became popular much earlier. The 1900s claim it as a greeting, albeit perhaps a vulgar one, due to the connotation to gambling or to the monetary operation between a prostitute and client. Given that, the phrase would not have been spoken in high society, even though the word “tricks” would have been defined in the dictionary as belongings, baggage, or things. No doubt overtime the colloquialism became more common, and it’s easy to plot the evolution between “how’s tricks” into the “how’s things” we say today.
Perhaps, during the Edwardian Era, if one wanted to ask how a person was doing, instead of using “how’s tricks,” he or she would ask if the weekend or the day “cut the mustard.” The phrase means to succeed or meet expectations, although what exactly mustard has to do with that is somewhat of a mystery. Speculations about the origin include the mustard seed itself, which has to be cut with a knife due to its small size; the military expression “cut the muster;” or the common idiom “as keen as mustard.” The first theory seems implausible and the second one contradictory because to cut the muster during a military inspection would mean a breach of uniform. The third theory fits better with the definition of the phrase because historically, there has been an association between the hot flavor of mustard and the vividness of someone’s personality. Therefore, being “up to mustard” would roughly mean being up to standard, at least in terms of enthusiasm. Whatever the true origins or significance, to “cut the mustard” was used in a myriad of popular culture, including books and articles. And since living up to expectations or even exceeding them would be a common theme of the competitive, innovative 20th century, the phrase still lingers today, in the form of the synonymous axiom, “making the cut.”
Those that were a far cry from cutting the mustard possibly had “bats in the belfry,” implying that they had bats flitting about in their empty heads and were odd or eccentric. It’s a dark image, very reminiscent of the gothic Victorian era novels where there were sure to be many descriptions of bats haunting old, abandoned bell towers. The phrase was probably responsible for spawning the slang word, “batty,” in the same decade. Interestingly enough, there was also a William Battie who was a physician during the mid-18th century specializing in the study of mental illness and published a book on treatment options called A Treatise on Madness. There could also be a connection between his name and the expression “batty” though it could of course, just be coincidence.
However, is it coincidence that expressions describing eccentric or insane people cropped up quite often in the early 1900s? “To have a screw loose” or to be “off her trolley” were common slang terms, as well as the peculiar British phrase, “barmy on the crumpet.” Nowadays of course, there are many more idioms for being crazy, but are left over accumulations from earlier eras. Could the influx of colloquial phrases for madness be due to a combination of the increased attention given to mental illnesses during the beginning of the century and the heavyset prejudices that remained on the subject? The National Mental Health Association was founded in 1909, yet those considered mentally unstable at that time would live in an asylum with relatively few humane or helpful treatments. Having bats in the belfry could seem comical nowadays, but to be accused of such a thing a hundred years would no doubt carry a much heavier weight.
We mold old words to suit new meanings, and old words mold us to past traditions. It’s a constant push and shove of definitions and connotations, and while the history of some slang words remains obstinately murky, studying it does provide a glimpse of how we came to our current settings and thoughts.
By Maria Peltekova
Random House Word of the Day: https://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20010103
Idioms and Axioms: http://www.pride-unlimited.com/probono/idioms2.html
The Phrase Finder: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/cut-the-mustard.html, http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/bats-in-the-belfry.html
The Free Dictionary: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/eccentricity