Spitting Wooden Nickels
April 21, 2014 § 1 Comment
A typical conversation in my family at mealtime consists of how our day is going or upcoming events. Sometimes we also permit ourselves to reminisce about our “old lives” in the States or something along those lines. Nothing too fantastic.
However, occasionally we stumble upon a real gold nugget of a topic, as was the case during lunch today.
I’ll briefly set the scene. Mom had just hung a comforter outside on a drying rack and was keeping an eye on it out in the backyard. Our table is positioned in such a way that as we were eating, she could still see the patio.
Mom: (stands up from the table) I’m gonna go spit wooden nickels.
Dad and I: (exchange extremely confused looks)
Me: Did she just say… Spit wooden nickels?
Dad: I think so. (chuckles)
Mom: (comes back) I thought a bird pooped on the comforter but it was just a bee.
Me: OK. Did you say, “I’m gonna go spit wooden nickels?”
Dad: What does it mean?
Mom: To be angry about something.
Dad and I: (laughing)
Dad: What? How?
Mom: Who is on the nickel?
Mom: (scoffs) No, Washington.
Dad: OH, OF COURSE! That makes absolute PERFECT sense now. I completely understand.
Dad: I’m very confused.
Me: What does Washington being on the nickel have to do with anything?
Mom: He had wooden teeth.
Dad and I: (laughing very hard)
Dad: I don’t even think that’s true, but even if it is, what does it have to do with anything?
Mom: Well I don’t know, it’s just what I heard as a kid.
Me (as the technologically somewhat advanced teenager, I pulled out my phone to do some research): According to Wikipedia, the saying is “stand upside down and spit wooden nickels-
Mom: Ok, whatever. So I missed a part.
Me: -and it means to try to do the impossible.
Dad: See, this is how language evolves. As a kid, you probably heard an adult say it out of frustration. You interpreted it as anger, but really the adult had just been asked to do a seemingly impossible task, so it was this other element that was the real meaning.
Now imagine if you left hundreds of years ago to be part of a remote colony and you were very influential as an English speaker, perhaps as a teacher or community leader of some kind.
The next generation would learn from you what the phrase means, but hundreds of years later when the two communities (the second being other English speakers around the world) met, they would misunderstand each other in regards to this saying.
Mom and I: PLEASE, stop!
Mom: None of this is even real! I like hearing real things and you’re just making up hypothetical situations that are never going to happen.
Dad: OK, OK, so imagine a hypothetical situation in which you moved to a remote colony hundreds of years-
Dad: (looks at a nickel) HEY! It is Jefferson on the nickel!
Me: And George Washington’s teeth were carved out of ivory, not wood.
Mom: I just heard it as a kid!
Maybe you just had to be there…