Commentary: Playing Footsie | KERA News

Commentary: Playing Footsie

Dallas, TX –

I mentioned in a recent KERA commentary a speaker who had said that someone had one foot in the bucket mixing "one foot in the grave" with "kick the bucket."

That blooper reminded me of other "foot" mixaphors: for example, the college student who described a place where "the hand of man had never set foot." And a radio newscast that said people selling Indian art were making money "hand over foot" instead of hand over fist.

I guess we could say those are examples of putting your foot in your mouth.

"Foot" expressions are common in figurative language and are usually clear from the context unless we get them wrong! We put our best foot forward or get our foot in the door. We're light on our feet, land on our feet, and think well on our feet. We're trying to get a foothold, or to get on equal footing. We'd like to leave our footprints in the sands of time.

When we've had enough, we put our foot down. Those with itchy feet are lucky if they're also footloose. If we drive too fast, we have a lead foot, or if we don't want to go, we drag our feet.

Show us some footlights, and we dazzle 'em with our footwork, bringing the crowd to its feet. The people in the audience, thus swept off their feet, will be at our feet. We might consider them lackeys or footboys. Or worse, footkissers, footlickers, or bootlickers. They might remain underfoot, waiting on us hand and foot until they discover our feet of clay. Then they will dash away, fleet of foot.

We call a newcomer or novice a tenderfoot, a frontier term for the dude whose feet are sore from unaccustomed boots. We term an amateur or someone who lacks judgment or ability a footling. An insubstantial or inept person is footless, meaning, metaphorically, that he has no feet - thus, lacks a foundation.

We might say of a judgmental person who wants everyone to conform to his standards: "He measures everyone's foot by his own last." (A last is a foot-shaped form used in shoemaking.)

We say something is "footy" when we mean paltry or poor. The sound of a step is a footfall. We foot the bill. Or maybe we don't foot the bill and sneak away. We may be caught flat-footed - maybe by a flatfoot!

The Latin and Greek roots for the word foot are ped and pod. We see those prefixes in podiatrist, pedal, pedestrian, pedicure, and pedometer. We see "pod" suffixes in words such as pleopod, meaning resembling a foot, or anthropod, which means such invertebrate animals as insects, arachnids, and crustaceans.

And, notably, we see the "foot" root in podium, which helps us remember that a podium is the platform a speaker stands on. The stand a speaker stands at is not properly a podium, but a lectern which we can remember by relating it to the word lecture.

But that's just a footnote.

Paula LaRocque is the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.

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