Brownie Points and Brass Monkeys: 8 Sayings that may be Naughty or Nice

by Kassandra Lamb

The other day, I was on the phone with a friend. “That’ll get you some brownie points with your boss,” I said, in response to the story she’d just told me. After we said our goodbyes, I got to thinking about that phrase and where it came from.

Being a writer, I am fascinated by language. So my thoughts wandered on to other phrases that seem fairly innocent, but may have less than innocent origins. Curiosity took over and I did some research.

Here are four sayings that sound innocent, but maybe aren’t so much (followed by four that sound bad but are rather innocent)*:

Brownie points:
The first thing you might think of when you hear this phrase are these luscious treats.

photo by Gdr, CC-BY 3.0 license, Wikimedia Commons

photo by Gdr, CC-BY 3.0, Wikimedia

But before you start licking your lips, read on.

I’ve always heard that this phrase was related to another one: brown-noser. As in someone who kisses a certain part of someone else’s anatomy in order to get ahead (and comes away with a brown nose in the process). According to Wikipedia, my explanation is indeed one possible source of the saying.

From the HOWDY DOODY SHOW–Girl Scouts 38th anniversary (yes, I am old enough to remember Howdy Doody, vaguely.)


Other theories regarding the saying’s origins involve several companies that gave brown stamps or brown points to customers or employees, which could then be redeemed for prizes, bonuses and such.

And yet another explanation involves those Girl Scout wannabes in brown uniforms, or rather the pointed merit badges they strive to earn by doing good deeds.

That sucks!
This phrase has gone through several mutations through the decades.

The phrase, “Go suck eggs!” was used when you didn’t like something someone said to you. It meant go do something stupid.

(Apparently, before awareness of salmonella, people did sometimes eat eggs this way, by sucking them raw out of a hole in the end of the shell. Ick!)

When I was a kid, back in those Howdy Doody dark ages, the concept of “suck” became associated with a sexual act performed by one’s mouth. For my generation, it was equivalent to that other bad word that rhymes with it and starts with f.

But today it’s come back around to being a mild curse word, equivalent to damn or hell. You even here kids saying, “That sucks!” when commiserating with someone. And often the adults don’t even flinch (although I still do inside).

Rule of thumb
Here’s another perfectly innocent saying. We use it all the time to mean a commonly accepted way of doing or measuring something. “The rule of thumb is that blog posts should be about 800 to 1200 words.” (Yeah, I break that one a lot.)


cartoon published in 1792 of ‘Judge Thumb’ (public domain)

But when I looked this one up I discovered it has a violent history (that turns out to be undeserved). It’s origin is often ascribed to a ruling by an English judge in 1782 that a man could beat his wife as long as the stick he used was no bigger around than his thumb. At the time, this judge was ridiculed for this supposed ruling and dubbed “Judge Thumb.”

However, later investigations found no such ruling had been made by that judge, or any other for that matter, and the saying had been in use long before that. So this commonly accepted belief about where this saying came from is wrong. It’s actual origin seems to be unknown.

Saved by the bell
A perfectly innocent-sounding saying, right? We use it (internally perhaps) when a ringing telephone, a doorbell, or some other bell interrupts an awkward situation.

Heck, they even made a teen sitcom series by that name in the early 1990’s.

Cloche_dessous pub domain wikiBut this saying has a spooky origin. Back before modern science established definitive ways to tell that someone was dead, people were sometimes buried alive (as evidenced by scratch marks on the inside of coffins that were sometimes unearthed for a variety of reasons).

To prevent this, a bell was placed next to a new grave, with a string attached. The other end of the string was tied to the corpse’s wrist inside the coffin. A watchman was left in the graveyard the first night after a burial, so that if the person started moving inside their coffin the bell would ring and they would be saved.

Now here are four sayings that sound shady, but actually came from something quite innocent*:

By hook or crook:
We say this today to describe someone who is willing to achieve a goal by any means, honest or not. But this phrase comes from a very honest practice in England in the Middle Ages. Forests belonged to the royalty and commoners were not allowed to cut down trees in them. But the poor could legally gather already dead wood for firewood. They were even allowed to knock or pull limbs from the trees ‘by hook or crook’ as long as the limb was already dead.

(This is actually a self-portrait by Antoine de Favray, so he probably didn't charge himself an arm and leg. But I couldn't resist the wandering hand.)

(This is actually a self-portrait by Antoine de Favray, so he probably didn’t charge himself an arm and leg for it. But I couldn’t resist the wandering hand.)

It will cost you an arm and a leg:
When you hear this saying, don’t you imagine a merchant dismembering his/her customers?

But this comes from a long-ago practice by portrait painters of charging for their work by the number of limbs to be portrayed in the painting (arm, hand, or leg), because these are the body parts that are particularly difficult to draw and paint.

Thus the tendency for old portraits to show people hiding some of their limbs (Like this fellow. Where is that hand headed anyway? And notice how he’s pointing the other way with his other hand. “Don’t notice my right hand; it’s not doing anything interesting, honest! Just look this way!”)


Okay, this is a word, not a saying, but when I stumbled on its origins, I had to share it with you.

Long before the invention of modern media, politicians had no way of knowing how their constituents really felt about the events of the day. So they would send their assistants out to the local pubs to drink with the common folk and listen in on their conversations. These young men would be instructed to “go sip ale” and bring back the latest word from the man on the street.

And last but not least, my favorite:

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey:
Back in the day, cannons were the main weapon of defense for forts and ships.

rows of stacked cannonballs circa Civil War (public domain)Have you ever wondered how they kept cannonballs in those neat little pyramids? It wasn’t easy.

On a rolling ship, it was particularly difficult, until some bright soul came up with an idea. Brass plates were secured around the bottom of the pile, with rounded indentations for the iron cannonballs of the lowest layer to rest in. These plates were called “monkeys” for some reason.

There was only one problem. Brass contracts faster than iron at freezing temperatures. So when ships sailed in colder climes, the iron cannonballs would pop right out of their brass monkeys.

*Disclaimer: I make no promises about the accuracy of the origins of these sayings. There’s a limit to how much research I’m willing to put into a just for fun post. 😉

If you’d like to find more odd sayings, and their origins, check these out:

10 Sayings and their Strange Origins

What’s your favorite saying? Do you know where it comes from?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    January 20, 2015 at 7:43 am

    Cool background, Kass! That “arm and a leg” was particularly new to me. 😉

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 20, 2015 at 8:39 pm

      I’d never heard of that one’s background before either, Kathy. I’ll never look at old portraits the same again!

  • Reply
    Susie Lindau
    January 20, 2015 at 9:25 am

    A rule of thumb is a measurement. I looked it up and viola! Wikipedia concurred. I use body parts to measure pretty often.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 20, 2015 at 8:42 pm

      I didn’t check Wikipedia for that one, Susie. Other cites said it was probably just that, a way of measuring before rulers were in common use. But it’s been in use all the way back to the early 1600’s!

      I pace things off all the time, because I have really big feet, so they are almost as long as a “foot.” 😀

  • Reply
    shannon esposito
    January 20, 2015 at 9:33 am

    Interesting! The arm and a leg thing totally cracked me up, now I’m going to be looking for that in old paintings. The “sucks” thing is interesting. Though we try our best not to swear in front of the kids, that’s one saying I’ve never censored. Of course, they haven’t picked it up yet either, maybe it would sound offensive if it came from a nine year old. I will have to let you know. 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 20, 2015 at 8:43 pm

      See, I keep telling you, Shannon, you’re not that old. 😉 It’s really not considered a bad word by a lot of people now.

      • Reply
        Kristy K. James
        January 22, 2015 at 2:41 am

        “That sucks” is a favorite saying – and I say it a lot. Hmm…

  • Reply
    Lynn Kelley
    January 20, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    I’m old enough to vaguely remember Howdy Doody, too! Such a fun and interesting post. I had no idea about the brownie points. I’d rather think it has to do with the little Girl Scouts getting their points rather than the other choices!

    I had heard about “saved by the bell,” and that is creepy, for sure, but yay for whoever thought of doing that so hopefully a few people were saved by the bell!

    The origin of the word “gossip” is interesting, and the brass monkey, well, I’m glad that’s cleared up! Haha!

    Fascinating about the arm and a leg, too That brings to mind the saying, “He’s just pulling your leg.” I’m sure they don’t mean anything similar, but it makes me wonder how that saying came about. Maybe the same way pranksters like to tap someone on the shoulder when they’re not looking and leave the person wondering who tapped them because the culprit has moved far enough and is looking elsewhere. Thanks for these fun tidbits, Kassandra.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    January 20, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    You’re welcome, Lynn. Hmm, didn’t think to look up “pulling my leg.” May have to do some more research…

    • Reply
      Kristy K. James
      January 22, 2015 at 2:44 am

      I hate the saved by the bell one. That’s just too nightmare-inducing for me, lol.

      Just looked up pulling your leg though (

      1. Thieves used to pull at people’s legs to trip them and then use the quarry’s disorientation as an opportunity to rob them.


      2. The ‘pulling my leg’ theory is that people, the so called ‘hangers on’, were hired at Tyburn executions to hang onto the victim’s legs in order to give them a quick end.

      • Reply
        Kristy K. James
        January 22, 2015 at 2:44 am

        Oops… This was the website for that info:

      • Reply
        Kassandra Lamb
        January 23, 2015 at 1:53 pm

        Yeah, I may never say “saved by the bell” again, Kristy. Not when it conjures up that mental image.

        Thanks for adding ‘pulling your leg.’ That second meaning is pretty gruesome too. I think I’ll go with the first one. Wonder how it came to mean putting someone on about something?

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    January 23, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    What a plethora of sayings Kassandra. And yes I am old enough to remember all of them. Although I had no idea where they came from. Except for being Saved by the Bell. That one I did know. Yeah, don’tcha love that one? And I’m with you my friend. Yes, suck has become commonplace today. Not too comfortable using that term because as you bring out, it was related to the “F” word, which may not come as a shock to you, I do not use, though there are some who use it as if it were commonplace. Yeah, I’m not quick to change, have you noticed? lol. But hey, different strokes for different folks. Now I wonder where that one came from? 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 23, 2015 at 3:34 pm

      teehee… I’m not sure I want to know where different strokes came from, Karen.

      Hanging out with college students when I was teaching cured me of wincing when adults say “suck” but I still cringe a little inside when a kid uses it. I try to hide that reaction though, so as not to show my age. 🙂

  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    January 23, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    I really enjoyed this post, Kassandra! I’d heard the origins of most of these over the years, but didn’t know “gossip” or the brass monkeys one. Learn something new everyday. Thanks!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 23, 2015 at 5:21 pm

      I had no idea bout those two either, Vinnie. I’d always assumed a much more vulgar origin for the brass monkeys. 😀

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