aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Variations on a theme

Language is not only metaphorical, it's historical. Our talk is full of common expressions divorced from their original context. We all sort of know what they mean, but we no longer know where they come from. For us word geeks, knowing the history increases our pleasure and facility in using these expressions.

A friend used the expression "mixed bag" in a social media post this morning. I was just explaining to Deanne the other day the origin of that term. "Bag" is a hunting term. It comes from the bag slung under the bird hunter's arm, where the birds shot that day are kept until the hunter gets home. This is why "bag" is also a verb for a successful hunt ("we bagged six pheasants this morning, Cedric").

Lord Dunsany, the Irish peer and writer of fantasy stories and plays, wrote a book called My Ireland. It was written just after independence from Britain was achieved, and he was trying to get a sense of what it meant to be Irish. That said, it's mostly a book about bird hunting, which was his preoccupation. Dunsany uses the term "mixed bag" in a way that finally lit up my understanding.

A bird hunter usually goes out hunting one particular kind of bird. You take the appropriate gun and shells for that bird, you go to its habitat. You want to "bag" enough of that bird to serve everybody back at the castle or manor at dinner. But sometimes, you don't get much. At the end of the day, there are (let's say) two snipe, a woodcock, and a duck in your bag. That's a mixed bag. It's a miscellany.

A similar term is "mine run." The editor of the Linton Daily Citizen (known locally as the Linton Daily Blowgut) used to write a column called "Mine Run." In a coal mining community, where even the local high school sports teams are the Miners, it was very apropos. A mine run is the totality of what a mine produces in a day.

Imagine the miners underground blasting and digging, and filling ore carts with all they have managed to work loose. They don't sort it down there; if they don't get it out of the way, they can't keep digging. So everything is brought up and out and dumped on a conveyor or something where it can be sorted. There is valuable ore and worthless ore, all mixed together. Some of the good stuff might not be what you were mining for, but is nevertheless a profitable by-product. Finally, the tailings (useless rock) are dumped somewhere. The mine's run for the day is all that stuff passing along under your review. So a "mine run" is an unorganized, off-the-top take on everything going on. It's a miscellany that doesn't pretend that the various pieces are of equal value. Jeff Nordlinger's column, Impromptus is a mine run.

Sometimes we refer to a group of people as an odd lot. We usually take "odd" here in the meaning of peculiar, but the term actually refers to quantity. An odd lot is a quantity of something less than the amount that that commodity usually comes in. It especially refers to sales of securities, which are typically sold in 100-share blocks. To buy a particular number of shares (say, 67), is to ask for an "odd lot." If you wanted to buy eggs by the unit rather than the dozen, you would be buying an odd lot of eggs, I suppose. However, when someone says, "we're kind of an odd lot," the speaker isn't implying that there are fewer of us than usually show up; the implication is that we are different in some way -- either from other people, or from each other.

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