Regular readers of this blog already know I am fascinated by colloquialisms and idioms—the words, phrases, and sayings that add color and dimension to our everyday language and writing.
Most of us understand the context of these terms because we’ve heard others use them, but we are usually unaware of their historical origins and implications. Often such words and phrases are indirect, critical references to harsh, real world circumstances. But they serve a purpose—because there is a common understanding of what these terms mean, they are a way for people to refer to difficult, unpleasant situations without having to discuss the details.
Not surprisingly, genealogical investigations (my most recent enthusiasm) reveal many euphemisms. Family members, reluctant to discuss the details of family disputes, criminal activity, suicides, mental illness, simple indiscretion, etc., instead refer to them in vague, euphemistic terms. Sometimes, though, originally derogatory terms evolve into something familiar and meaningful…at least on a personal level.
For example, the phrase Irish twins describes two children of the same mother who are born less than a year apart. As you might guess, the term’s origins refer to the close birth order of the children of Irish Catholics who, historically at least, did not practice birth control.
The phrase interests me because it applies to my older brother, Bill, and me—he and I are the same age for approximately six weeks each year: he was born the third week of January and I was born, prematurely, on December 1st of the same year. We started school together and had our First Communions at the same time, but I ended up a year ahead of Bill in school. He was held back due to a playground accident that kept him out of school for an extended period.
Bill and I are night and day to one another. He has a gorgeous head of hair; mine requires a perm to make it anywhere near presentable. When he is optimistic, I am pragmatic. He angers easily; I’m more even-tempered. He will hold a grudge to eternity and beyond; I’m usually willing to forgive and forget. He has stayed close to home; I’ve wandered far and wide. I have a master’s degree; Bill earned his GED in Job Corps—but he continually amazes me by the depth and scope of his knowledge and interests.
All that said, we are much more alike than we are different. We have background and memories that our younger siblings aren’t old enough to share. Our specific recollections differ, but we both enjoy reminiscing (and arguing) about visits to our grandfather’s farm. We attended elementary school in our parents’ adopted hometown, and we remember the first home our parents owned. We remember where Dad worked and the café down the street where he and his workmates took their coffee breaks. We remember 33 cents per gallon gasoline accompanied by green stamps or a complimentary drinking glass. We have fond memories of baby A&W root beer treats on the way to the drive-in movie (I don’t remember a single movie—was there a sedative in that root beer?).
Though this could go on forever, I will stop here. Bill, my brother, my Irish twin, this post is for you.