Thursday, May 05, 2005

False Etymology, part 1: costing an arm & a leg

A friend forwarded me an e-mail account of some purported origins of some common idioms. The list of those claims can be found here. The first one on that list suggests
In George Washington’s days, there were no cameras. One’s image was either sculpted or painted. Some paintings of George Washington showed him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while others showed both legs and both arms. Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be painted. Arms and legs are “limbs,” therefore painting them would cost the buyer more. Hence the expression. “Okay, but it’ll cost you an arm and a leg.”
Not true. According to the Word Detective site, there is no specific record of who first came up with the phrase and under what specific circumstances, but it was perhaps popularized as recently as 1956 in Billie Holliday's autobiography. For details, see here and scroll down or use your browser to search for "nominal egg." Seriously.

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