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Quirky English Idioms

Do you tell people to pound sand or pound salt? Where do we get the expressions “the whole ball of wax”  and “the whole shebang”?

By
Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #359

Idiom: Pound Sand or Pound Salt?

Last week, I also had an unusual experience with an idiom. My father always uses the expression “Tell them to go pound sand”; but a few days ago, I heard a friend tell someone to go pound salt.

So I looked it up, and unfortunately, it wasn’t in any of the three print idiom dictionaries I have. But I did find some information online.

First, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “pound sand” is mostly a N. American phrase, so foreign listeners may not have heard the expression. As I always imagined, it's a way to dismiss someone or show contempt, but it has its roots in the idea of a pointless, menial task. (1) You aren’t telling people to go to a beach and pound on the sand in frustration with their fists, you’re telling them to go waste their time shoveling ditches or filling holes.

Interestingly, the Dictionary of American Regional English has this meaning—go waste your time at a useless job—but it also has a longer, related idiom with a different meaning that seems to have come first: pound sand down a rat hole, which you use to say someone is stupid. For example, they have an entry from 1912 that reads, “He wouldn’t know enough to pound sand in a rat-hole,” and one from 1927 that reads, “That man does not have sense enough to pound sand in a rat hole.” (3) [Note the difference in hyphenation of “rat hole.” That’s pretty common. See my article about compound words.]

Still, this didn’t answer the “pound salt” question. But I finally found an answer on The Phrase Finder, a site that specializes in idioms. (4) This site notes that there are other places you can pound sand besides a rat hole, and one of the more polite options is in your ears. The site speculates that salt may have been substituted for sand because it would be even more uncomfortable to pound salt into your body than to pound sand.

A Google Ngram search seems to show that “go pound sand” did appear in American English before “go pound salt” and neither phrase is used in British English.

As you can see, you can have a lot of fun tracking down where different idioms come from and how they got their modern day meanings. Some examples, such as “the whole ball of wax,” are based in historical practices; others, such as “the whole kit and caboodle,” are more mundane; and some, like “pound sand,” are harder to track down or have changed their meaning over time.

References

1. Ammer. C. “whole.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd edition, 2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 495.
2. “pound.” Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition. 2006. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/149026?redirectedFrom=pound+sand#eid29093665 (accessed March 6, 2013)
3. Hall, J.H. “pound sand down a rat hole.” Dictionary of American Regional English, online edition. http://dare.wisc.edu/?q=node/260 (accessed March 6, 2013).
4. “go pound sand.” The Phrase Finderhttp://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/go-pound-sand.html (accessed March 6, 2013).

 

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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