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Category results for 'idioms'.

We recently had a blizzard up here in the north. We got 22 inches of snow, and although I've seen bigger storms, it's been a long time since I've seen one this big. You can see my boy here playing with his shovel on top of a newly plowed snowbank. You can put money on the fact that no one is going to be using that swingset behind him for a few months!

A friend commented that "it's snowing to beat the band," and then added that "to beat the band" is one of those strange English idioms that most of us can't even explain.

So let's try to explain it! Part of the difficulty with this idiom is that there are two words in it that can have multiple meanings:

Beat (verb)

  • To strike violently (My child beat on that snowbank with his shovel.)
  • To gain victory over (He beat us all in a game of "King of the Snowbank.")
  • To pulsate (Climbing on top of snowbanks makes his heart beat faster!)
  • To stir (You need to thoroughly beat the egg whites when making meringue.)

Band (noun)

  • a loop designed to hold things together (a rubber band)
  • a stripe (A mallard has a white band around its neck.)
  • a range of frequencies (the AM band, the FM band, etc)
  • a group of people with a common interest (Robin Hood's Merry Men were a band of bandits)
  • a group of musicians performing together (Seventy-six trombones would make for a very large band.)

Now, with four different verb meanings, and five different noun meanings, our knowledge of counting principles helps us to determine that there are 20 different possible meanings for this idiom!

Maybe it means "to violently strike Robin Hood's Merry Men," or "to pulsate a mallard's neck," or "to stir the FM band."

Okay, these are all silly. The definitions we're looking for are "to gain victory over" and "a group of musicians performing together."

The earliest usages of the phrase involve someone playing a musical instrument or singing loudly enough to overpower a musical band. If you "sing to beat the band," that means you're singing loudly enough that people can hear you over the sound of the band playing. Generally, nowadays, we don't think about singing loudly enough to be heard over a band, because we have microphones to help amplify our voices. But the first print appearances of this phrase occured right around the time Edison and others were developing the microphone (and they were being used for recording purposes rather than for live performances).

Eventually, the phrase took on a more generic meaning. The phrase now simply suggests a superlative. When I say that my little girl talks to beat the band, I'm not saying she talks loudly; I'm saying that she talks a lot! Similarly, when I say that the snow is falling to beat the band, I'm not saying it's falling loudly! 

I should add that there is some argument out there that it's a variation on the phrase "beat Banagher" or maybe "beat Banaghan," both of which would be Irish references to...well, it seems that even the Irish aren't fully convinced, since they're not sure how to spell it! Regardless, the first print references we have make it clear that we're using the music definition of band, so the Banagh (er/an) controversy isn't terribly relevant to our understanding of the phrase!

Martha asks, "Where does the phrase 'By the Seat of your Pants' come from?"

Well, Martha, I didn't know the answer to this one, so I checked a few different sources, and was able to piece together what seems like a reasonable explanation.

The one thing that all the sources agree on is that it's an old aviation expression. That makes sense, because the full phrase is typically "flying by the seat of your pants," even when the expression is being used in other contexts. For example, if you're playing volleyball, and you don't know how to serve, you wouldn't (probably) say "serving by the seat of my pants" you would still say "flying by the seat of my pants" even though you're not actually flying.

So where does this expression come from? What does it mean to "fly by the seat of your pants?"

Well, in the early days of aviation, the instruments for determining how fast you're going, what angle you're flying at, etc, were not very sophisticated, and in some cases either weren't installed in a plane, or malfunctioned in mid-flight. If that happened, you had to, in an almost literal sense, fly by the seat of your pants.

How would you know if your plane was declined from horizontal? Your "seat" started sliding forward in the pilot's chair. If you felt like you were going to land butt first on the floor, that was a pretty good indicator that you were on a pretty steep descent. Similarly, if you felt like your backside was getting pushed backward, it's a good bet that you're ascending.

What about banking? Well, if you've studied circular motion (or if you've just sat in a car taking a corner quickly!) you know that when the chair you're sitting in takes a corner, your body has a tendency to keep going in a straight line, until you start pressing up against the door, or the side of the chair. So if the plane is banking, you'll feel it in the seat of your pants, because you'll start sliding sideways in the chair.

So pilots who were very experienced could successfully fly a non-instrumented plane based solely on how their derriere was situated in the pilot's chair!

Today, it has taken a more idiomatic meaning. It simply means to do something without planning or organizing, or improvise. To put it another way, it's the same as "winging it," which - interestingly - is not an aviation metaphor. It's a theatrical metaphor, meaning that the person was doing last minute practicing in the stage wings (the offstage area where people waited before performing).

Flying by the seat of your pants. Winging it. Both mean to improvise, but they have vastly different origins!

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