Peeping Tom and Nervous Nellie: Ten Famous Names and Where They Came From

Nov 07

1. Peeping Tom

Lady Godiva was a noblewoman who lived in England in the eleventh century, who began campaigning for a tax reduction. She made an agreement with her husband that he would reduce taxes when she rode naked through the market square.

Legend has it that Godiva sent word to the people of the town, asking them to avert their eyes as she rode naked through the market. Everyone honored her wishes except one tailor named Tom, who snuck a peek as she rode by. Immediately after viewing her, Tom was struck blind. Although parts of this story are thought to be true, the Peeping Tom portion was added somewhat later to embellish the story.

2. Typhoid Mary

“Typhoid Mary” Mallon had no idea that she was infected with the disease yet her work as a cook infected many.  She was the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier. After being detained for spreading the disease to families that she had cooked for, she continued to work as a cook even knowing that she was a typhoid carrier. Later, when a doctor made the connection that all the families that she had worked for had gotten sick with typhoid, he interviewed Mary. When he asked her for a stool sample, she threatened him with a meat cleaver. She was not known to be a pleasant person.

3. Nervous Nellie

To call a man a “Nellie” was somewhat like calling him a “Nancy” today.

The  term “Nervous Nellie” originated in the U.S. around 1926. It was first aimed at Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, who was known to have non-aggression policies that weren’t always popular.

4. Doubting Thomas

The expression refers to the disciple Thomas, who doubted Jesus’ resurrection until he had first-hand evidence of it. It now describes a person who is habitually doubtful. 

5. For Pete’s Sake 

“Pete” refers to St. Peter in this expression of annoyance that dates to the late 19th century.

Another version of the exclamation is “for the love of Pete,” or “for the love of Mike,” both used as euphemisms for the phrase “for the love of God.” Around 1918, Pete joined Mike as the person to invoke when you were impatient, annoyed or frustrated. Both names served as stand-ins for the God that it would be blasphemous to mention.(  

6.  Johnny Come Lately

Refers to a newcomer or novice. In the British Army, a new recruit was known as “Johnny Raw.” In the Napoleonic wars, experienced officers referred to newly-arrived young officers as “Johnny Newcome.” The name “Johnny Come Lately” also implies that the novice is a bit late at jumping on a trend.

7. Johnny on the Spot

“Johnny” is used as a generic male name, meaning fellow or chap. “Johnny-on-the-Spot” refers to a man who is available and ready to act when needed.

8. Teddy Bear

The name Teddy Bear comes from President Theodore Roosevelt, whose nickname was “Teddy.”  The name originated from an incident on a bear-hunting trip in Mississippi in 1902. A group of Roosevelt’s fellow hunters cornered, clubbed, and tied an American Black Bear to a tree after a long chase with hounds. They called Roosevelt to the site and suggested that he should shoot it. He refused to shoot the bear himself, but instructed that the bear be killed to put it out of its misery, and it became the topic of a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman.

9. Great Scott!

The exclamation “Great Scott!” has two possible origins, dating back to the Civil War.  It may refer to Army General Winfield Scott. The general, known to his troops as “Old Fuss and Feathers,” weighed 300 pounds in his later years and was too heavy to ride a horse.  In 1861 the New York Times referred to him as the Great Scott. An 1871 issue quotes someone exclaiming “Great—Scott!” to use the name of the Army’s commander in chief as an oath, as officers sometimes did.

The expression is also likely to be a mild substitute for invoking the name of God; very possibly derived from the phrase “[by the] grace of God.” 

10. Gloomy Gus

The name “Gloomy Gus” is based on a cartoon character created by Frederick Burr Opper in 1904. The main character “Happy Hooligan” was an optimist, compared to his brother, Gloomy Gus, whose name is still used as a term for a negative person.





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