Where Do Our Expressions Come From?

We have a lot of slang sayings in English. How they originate, and how they change over time, can lead to some interesting stories.

First, have you heard of the expression “parting shot” ? The modern definition is “a final critical comment.” But its genesis is distinctly ancient.

It origin is probably the adjective Parthian, which often shows up in the phrase “Parthian shot,” and has its roots in the military strategies of this ancient civilization. One of the fighting maneuvers of Parthian horsemen was to discharge arrows while in real or feigned retreat. The maneuver must have been memorable because “Parthian shot” continues to be used for a “parting shot,” or a cutting remark made by a person who is leaving, many centuries after the dissolution of the Parthian empire (https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/parting-shot.html).

Second, every business has its rules. The first railroad rule book was Liverpool and Manchester’s 1830 Book of Rules. Railroading being a costly and dangerous business, the two most common forms of punishment were suspension and dismissal.

Then came Superintendent G.R. Brown of the Fall Brook Railroad (predecessor of the New York Central). In 1886, he decided education was more important than the harsh punishments of the time, so he invented a point system, tracking both good and bad incidents. He also publicized the incidents so everyone could learn from them.

It’s thought that this was the origin of the vehicle point system most states have adopted. Also, the negative points are what stuck in people’s minds in railroading, becoming known as “Brownies.” Could this be the origin of the expression “brownie points”? (Taken from the “On Operation” column by Jerry Dziedzic in the June 2020 issue of Model Railroader magazine.)

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