Question: I am curious to know the origin of "dressed to the nines." Can you help?

Answer: The phrase "dressed to the nines" is just a specific application of the Scottish phrase "to the nine " The earliest written evidence of this phrase appeared in the late 18th century in the poetry of Robert Burns. Its meaning is "to perfection; just right." The Scottish National Dictionary speculates that the phrase is derived from the game of ninepins, but this connection is not at all clear: Nine is the maximum score possible on any one throw in ninepins, but it is not a perfect score for the game. Nor does the ninepin, the center pin, have any special significance in the game. All in all, there is not as yet a definitive explanation of the use of "nine' in "to the nine "

"Dressed to the nines" dates from the mid-19th century, and since that time it has become the most frequent construction in which the old Scottish phrase still occurs.

Question: For over a year, my friends and I have been trying to figure out just what the saying "I was beside myself" means and where it comes from. We would appreciate your help.

Answer: We often use this expression to mean that someone is in a state of extreme excitement. In other words, that person has been swept away by a particular emotion. William Caxton has been credited with popularizing the saying back in the 15th century. But the notion of being beside oneself actually goes back at least to Greek. In the New Testament Festus says to St. Paul (Acts 26:24): "Thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad." The phrase clearly implies that such a person is crazed or, in a sense, "carried away" from himself at a particular time. It is also worth remembering that our word "ecstasy" comes ultimately from two Greek roots whose literal meanings are "to cause to stand outside of." The underlying metaphor is much the same as that of being beside oneself.

Today, we use "beside oneself" in a wide variety of contexts to signify that someone is not so much seriously deranged as overly excited. The expression continues to be popular as a means of conveying the effects of extreme emotion upon behavior.

Question: I'm curious about the expression "What in tarnation?!" Did it originate in the days of the Wild West?

Answer: All languages and cultures seem to have words or practices that are taboo and hence not mentioned in polite society. One result of the restrictions against certain words is the creation of euphemisms that can be used more freely, though naturally much of the intended force of a remark may be lost by this substitution.

Often a new euphemism retains the initial sound of the original taboo word. Thus we get "gosh," today considered a harmless substitute for the irreverent use of "God." At other times, the sounds of the original word are altered slightly and the word or expression is shortened.

"Tarnation" evolved through a combination of these phenomena. Its earliest ancestors were the words "damn" and "damnation," considered too coarse for polite society. These were euphemistically altered to "darn" and "darnation." Around 1790, the same time that "tarnation" emerged, the word "tarnal," an alteration of "eternal," was being used as a euphemism for "damned." Ultimately, then, "tarnation" developed as an alteration of "darnation," influenced along the way by "tarnal."

Although for some people "tarnation" conjures up visions of the grizzled cowpokes and prospectors of the Old West, in fact the pattern of its use is too complex for easy labeling. It can be found in the dialects of many different areas. James Joyce, the great Irish writer, even has a character exclaim "Wall, tarnation strike me!" in his 1922 novel Ulysses.