Inquiring minds: origins of idioms in American lit?

Each week the staff at the Roseville Library answers more than 2,500 questions on every subject under the sun. Here are some of the most interesting ones they’ve gotten lately.

Q. I am looking for a source that will help me determine the origin of idioms used by Americans, particularly those idioms that have their origin in American literature. Can you help?

A.  What did F. Scott Fitzgerald have to do with a New Orleans word for syncopated music?  What was a foxhole, and who said that were there no atheists to be found in one?  And, above all, what are the origins of America’s most widely used contribution to international communication — the phrase O.K.?

You can find the answers to idiom-related questions like these on websites like  and

But don’t overlook the peerless guide to America’s unique way with the English language, a book called “I Hear America Talking” by Stuart Berg Flexner, which you can find at the Roseville Library. Here are three examples from the book:
Starting in the mid-1870s, the West African word “Jazz” was used by musicians in New Orleans to describe syncopated music; but it was Fitzgerald who first applied it to the decade of the 1920s in his book Tales of the Jazz Age.

“Foxhole” as the term for a small trench shelter was first used in World War I, but it was Roman Catholic chaplain William Thomas Cummings who declared — during a sermon delivered under Japanese bombardment in World War II — that “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

OK may be the most universal expression in the whole world, but it started out as an intentional “comic” misspelling. In the summer of 1828, the literary wits of Boston and New York decided to abbreviate the phrase “all correct” (or, as they put it, “Oll Korrect”) to the initials O.K. Why they thought this was so clever remains something of a mystery, but the power of the phrase is undeniable. It swept the nation in the nineteenth century, and by the twentieth century, it had conquered the world. Someone is probably using it at this very moment in every place where human speech is heard.

Do you have a question for the staff at the Roseville Library? You can call them at 628-6803 or ask your question in person at the Information Desk, Roseville Library, 2180 Hamline Ave. Library hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

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