Thursday, 1 December 2011

Poker Faces, Wisdom Teeth, and Rip-offs

To this day, my face gets hot whenever I hear the expression poker face.

I got asked this question in Japan, by a student in my advanced English class: "Why poker face? Why does that mean not laughing, not smiling?"

I grew up in a non-card-playing household and only learned the difference between a spade and a club after I turned 30. Put on the spot, I told the student what I myself had always imagined was the inspiration behind this term: that poker faces were as straight as pokers, with which one stirred fires. I might have gotten away with it too if Etsuko, the classroom know-it-all, hadn't raised her hand.

"Isn't it poker face because when you are playing poker you should not show your expression?"

There is no horror like the horror of being shown up by a student in front of the entire class. At first, I tried to save face by saying that both origins were possible -- before breaking down and telling the class that Etusko was probably right. When I left the class, I was still blushing. What an idiot!

Ten years later, I was working in another school, this time with a small group of native English speakers and a large number of Japanese language experts. "Why do they call wisdom teeth oyashirazu in Japanese?" one of my American colleagues asked a Japanese coworker one afternoon. I listened attentively to the answer -- I'd long pondered this myself. Oyashirazu means, literally, 'not knowing parents', which seems like a strange thing to call teeth.

"It's because you get your wisdom teeth after your parents are dead," our Japanese colleague said.

My mouth dropped open. My parents had me late in life, but they were still alive when my wisdom teeth came in. "Really?" I said. "I always thought it was because your wisdom teeth never had any other teeth come before them. Your other teeth all have baby teeth that come first, sort of like parents. I thought that was what it meant -- teeth that didn't have any parents."

My Japanese co-worker's mouth dropped open. His eyes glazed over and his cheeks began to flame. "That's--" he started to say. "I mean, I don't know. I never thought about that. You might be right."

To this day, I don't know which one of us had it right, but this was one of the most satisfying moments in my Japanese-learning life.

Yesterday, poker faces and wisdom teeth came back to me when a student asked this question: "Why rip off? Why mean steal?"

"Rip off comes from the Prohibition period in America," I said, with perfect confidence. "Lots of people used to hide alcohol in their houses and they generally kept it under the floorboards of their kitchens. So when thieves broke into houses, they had a pretty good idea where to find it. They would pull the floorboards off, take the forbidden alcohol, and leave. When the owners came back, they would find their floorboards ripped off and the alcohol gone. It became fairly common and after a while people started to call it being ripped off.

Most of the students were satisfied with this explanation, but the smartest girl in the class narrowed her eyes at me. "Really?" she asked. "Is that really true?" She didn't follow this up with any challenge or alternative, but my cheeks began to burn. I heard this interesting story about rip off from uncles who were alive during the Prohibition. Is it possible that they were only teasing me? Might rip off have a completely different etymology?

Last night when I got back from work, I looked up rip off. I cannot find any mention of Prohibition, ripped-off floorboards, or references to rip off that precede 1969.

One thing I've learned from this: just because we're native speakers of a language doesn't mean we're the final authority on every single word, phrase, structure, or idiom.

But I'm never telling her that.


Lisa Shafer said...

I love etymology and the sorts of dictionaries that tell you these things.
I've been corrected by students before, but I've been teaching so long that it usually doesn't bother me too much. Roll with the punches and all.... and no, I'm not quite sure where that phrase came from. Boxing? Maybe I'll look it up..... :)

Vijaya said...

Mary I love how words come into being and before the internet confess to making up stories behind words. I love your rip-off explanation. Makes perfect sense to me.

Anne M Leone said...

It's always amusing to me how as native speakers there are so many words and phrases we take for granted. Some of them I've only discovered through self-editing, wondering why I said certain things, what it means, what synonyms I could used instead, etc. Language is such a rich thing. ESPECIALLY when native speakers have no clue where phrases have come from. I like the rip off story, too!

Carole said...

Well, if anyone asks me, I now know what to say about wisdom teeth, poker faces, and hopefully rip-off.

Right now we are having a bit of a to do in our church because my husband mentioned that although we celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec 25th, it probably (most certainly) is not the day he was born. He got a scathing e-mail from one staunch member, that I am pretty sure Jesus would be embarrassed to read. :)

Mirka Breen said...

With so much blushing, Mary, you may be too expressive to play poker…
Coming in from another language can indeed shed a new light. Thank you for another uber :) post.

Mary Witzl said...

Lisa -- I love dictionaries that tell you about word origins too; I just wish I had one that confirmed that rip-off story.

Teachers are wrong all the time -- it's an occupational hazard. But there's a difference between being a little bit wrong and flamboyantly, off-the-charts wrong. I'm worried that I've been the latter.

Mary -- It's fun to imagine how words came into being, isn't it? I'm so sure that my uncles' rip-off story is right, but I'm beginning to doubt that anyone else has heard it.

Anne -- Self-editing would have been a good idea before I told the students that long story. Now I'm worried that they're going to spread it around. They'll think I'm totally untrustworthy.

Feel free to rip that story off and spread it around! Perhaps we can create a history for it. :)

Carole -- Like your husband, I've heard that Jesus was most likely born in spring. If Biblical scholars say that, I wonder why people resist it so?

When we were in Cyprus, it used to amuse me to hear people saying that it was strange to be in a foreign country at Christmas, away from all the accoutrements of the holiday. There we were, a stone's throw from Israel, surrounded by all the plants Jesus would have been familiar with, but it wasn't Christmasy enough. People are pretty funny, aren't they?

Mirka -- I'd be such a God-awful poker player! I blush a lot, I've become a lousy liar, and I lack the nerve and logical mind card players need. But at least I know what a poker face is now.

Thank you for your kind words.

angryparsnip said...

Love the post today !
I have learned to say... They way I understand it ....... then if I'm wrong or off on another loop it can be explained.
Your story about ripoff make perfect sense to me !

cheers, parsnip

Anonymous said...

And then there's always the question of why the game is called poker and not "bluff" or something else. I just looked it up online; few of the online dictionaries hazard a guess, but The Compact OED suggests the origin is mid-19th century US, "perhaps related to German pochen 'to brag', Pochspiel 'bragging game'. One more gift from the 48ers, maybe.
[Somebody else can go check Wikipedia; I have to go home and fix supper.]

Bish Denham said...

I love finding out where phrases and words came from and how their meanings evolve/change over time. I can trace the interest back to a particular moment when I was about eight. I was looking up one word and stumbled upon the word NICE, which originally was a noun for an ignorant person. I was totally surprised and amazed that a word could change it's meaning so radically.

gypsyscarlett said...


That's really interesting about Nice. I'd heard that it had previously meant refined, but not that even earlier it had meant ignorant. time I'm dealing with a jerk, I'll smile and sweetly tell them how nice they are. :)

Murr Brewster said...

Oh, can I relate. I must have dozens of similar stories, but of course I can't remember them right now. In fact I can't even find the ends of my sentences with two action words and a metal detector. But Ripped Off? I distinctly recall hearing that for the first time around the end of the '60s. I think it was a neologism then, and it took off--same time as "hang-up" and "hung up on." I have no idea where it comes from, of course. Then again, I remember seeing "shit" on the bathroom stall in sixth grade and thinking it was something my classmates made up, because I'd never heard it before.

Pat said...

I learned a long time ago that as the senior person whether with my children or in other circumstances it isn't the end of the world if it becomes clear that I don't know everything, that I can be wrong and I sometimes make mistakes.
When this has happened I have noticed a more relaxed atmosphere and found it improved relations - especially with my step children in the early, difficult days.

Angela Ackerman said...

It's kind of neat to find out where phrases come from. And we all have misconceptions. I still remember when my 16 year old brother saw a sign for a 'Coin Laundry' and said it was too bad he hadn't brought his coin collection or he could have stopped to get it cleaned. My parents had a good laugh over it and I did too...absolutely not admitting to my know-it-all big brother that I didn't actually know what a 'coin laundry' was either. The secret will stay with me

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Mary Witzl said...

Parsnip -- Thank you -- it makes sense to me too. What doesn't make sense is that nobody else remembers this. I figured I'd better ask around before the generation that remembers the Depression is entirely gone.

Anne -- 'Pochspiel' -- what a great word for 'brag'. Even the most ordinary words have fascinating histories. If I ever have tons of time (ha!) I intend to immerse myself in the history of the English language.

Bish -- Until I read your comment today, I'd forgotten all about the interesting etymology of 'nice'. I learned this myself ages ago, but only remembered that it once meant 'dainty' or 'very fine', as in a 'nice' distinction between two things. If you have a chance, look at this -- it's great: (Jane Austen certainly knew how to have fun with words!)

Gypsy Scarlett -- I had a friend who used Chaucerian insults on people with amusing (for him, anyway) results. It's a good way to be offensive, because you don't really offend, and I imagine it's very diverting.

Murr -- I remember that too. But I also remember that my uncles were irritated by the younger generation's appropriation of what they insisted was THEIR term. They claimed that 'rip off' had been quite commonly used by people during Prohibition who'd had their hooch stolen. I wonder what recycled-by-the-younger-generation terms will drive me apoplectic when I'm their age (and I won't have too long to wait).

Pat -- As a teacher and mother, I have certainly learned how to admit that I am wrong/ignorant/misled, etc. I used to respect my teachers (and other elders) who did that. Oddly enough, my kids respect me when I confess to ignorance, but my students don't. Most of them are Asian and I think they have this idea that teachers are beyond ignorance. I can't help being irritated with whatever teacher taught them that. Nobody is immune from ignorance.

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- It's interesting that you mentioned coin laundries -- that is the term for laundrettes in Japan and since I've never seen it used anywhere else, I just assumed it was what they call Jinglish. Where did you see that term used?

Here in Scotland, for ages I thought that the bookmaker was a place where they bound books. What an idiot I felt when I finally figured out it was a place where you placed bets.

Eryl said...

Whether that story (regarding the origins of 'rip off') is true or not, I love it and it will be the one I cling to from now on. I have a book somewhere about the origins of most of our peculiar phrases, must look it out one of these days.

Are you enjoying the snow?

Lisa Gail Green said...

Great post! I love that sometimes no one really knows where a saying came from. It just becomes part of the language. Who knows, maybe someday someone will say something that originally came from a book we wrote.

Kristen Lippert-Martin said...

See, you're a truly honest person, Mary. That's why this troubled you. Whereas I lie to my kids all the time about the meanings of words and phrases when I don't know their actual origins. My kids say, "Is that really true?" And I say, "No. I totally made that up."


That's what I'm good at. I never play poker, but maybe I ought to take it up.

Thanks for the fun post.

(BTW, I saw your posting over at the BB's about how everyone's convinced you'll be someone else's cup of tea -- just not theirs. I got that a lot while agent hunting -- that I wasn't that particular agent's cup of tea but someone else would feel differently. Blah. I used to say, "I'm like orange pekoe. The one tea flavor that's always leftover in the sampler pack when everything else is gone." )

Anonymous said...

FWIW, they're called "coin laundries" in the US, too. Also Laundromats, regardless of whether they're actually part of that particular chain.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Thank you! I was enjoying the snow tremendously until I had to help dig our car out of it. Even when we got most of the snow off, we had to crack the ice on the doors to get the car open. Snow is a lot more fun when you're indoors with hot chocolate.

(Isn't this wind INCREDIBLE?)

Lisa -- Thank you for commenting. I would just love it if something I wrote entered the public lexicon. In fact, I'd settle just for being published and read -- I am easy to satisfy. ;o)

Kristen -- I'm beginning to wonder if I'll EVER write anything that will make the writing powers that be perk up and think "Ooh, publishable! Big bucks commercial potential here!" But in the meantime, I get great comments and encouragement from people who read my blog, and even if I die unpublished, that's something.

Anne -- I'm blushing again. I have never seen or heard the term 'coin laundry' outside Japan and always assumed it was a Japanese neologism. Which actually proves my point: just being a native speaker of a language doesn't make you any kind of final authority on that language.

Just yesterday, I assured my students that 'bestseller' was a term that only applied to books. In the Guardian today, I saw 'bestseller' used to describe walking boots. Sigh...

Timothy Eastwood said...

I've been a poker player for years now, and I don't mind smiling while playing poker. Each and every player has a strategy to win. I have mine, and part of it is SMILING.

Anonymous said...

LOVED this! I love etymology, and I too have struggled to explain things to ESL students. :)