What and where is a corner of the earth? Why are there always four? Why not eight, as in a cube? Or more? Can you elaborate on the source and reasoning of this anomaly?
-- Frank, San Diego
Dear Matthew Alice:
You are the apple of my eye. Where did that expression come from? Why an apple and not a cherry or a banana?
-- Megan, Maryland
Dear Matthew Alice:
My uncle's British and he says a lot of strange things. The other day, he said something was of the "first water." He said that meant it was an extreme example of something. The best or worst you could get. But he didn't know where the expression came from. Do you?
-- Dorothy Banks, San Diego
When you do something wrong, you have to face the music. My kid says that means you get sent to your room with your stereo and CDs for a while. I told him that's not what I meant. I know what I meant, but I can't explain the reasoning to him. Can you tell me why we "face the music"? Then I can tell him.
-- Mr. Frustration, Escondido
I've saved 'em up again, these word-origin things. We have a whole separate file for clichès, so today you get the full poop on hackneyed phrases. Considering how little satisfaction you've gotten in the past from our etymology louts, you all are gluttons for punishment (popular since the late 1800s, origin unknown). But...you asked for it.
If Mr. Frustration tried locking difficult teen in closet with Mantovani-Plays-the-Beatles tapes, perhaps facing the music would have some contemporary meaning. Until then, we'll have to face the facts (an etymological cousin, apparently, a few centuries old) and say that the music to be faced was from a military band or drum corps. They'd play at ceremonies when people were kicked out of the military for bad behavior ("Drummed out"? Same source) or faced some other punishment, like hanging, say. Tell your kid it could be worse.
"Of the first water" is one of the Brits' stranger-sounding expressions, but it actually comes from the jewelry business. Diamonds were once graded this way, and a diamond of the first as opposed to the second or third water was the best one. The clearest, the shiniest, the best color. Proper British speakers can be an annoyance of the first water.
Eye apples go way back. In the pre-autopsy days, people had the idea that the eye's pupil was a solid thing shaped like an apple. In the Anglo-Saxon language, in fact, "eye" and "apple" were the same word. And the word "apple" or equivalent is found in practically every language and once referred to fruit in general or to varieties that we now call by other names. So if you want to substitute lingonberry or kiwi in the expression, you'd have an etymological argument.
In my little corner of the earth, Alice Acres, we figure four corners is plenty. No need to turn the square world of clichès into a polyhedron. The standard meaning of "corner" has existed in print since about the 12th Century. It had evolved to metaphor status by the 13th Century. By then, among other things, it might mean any unnamed mysterious or very far off place. We got four (rather than eight or ten) from navigators who referred to the wind as coming from a particular quarter or corner of the compass. There are also references to four corners of the world in biblical translations (Psalms) and in Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice), which pretty much guarantees the expression's placement in the clichè hall of fame.