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Words Dec. 23

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A colleague asks about the origin of the comparatively new phrase “cowboy up.” Usually a noun, cowboy is a verb in cowboy up. In a Sept. 24, 2003, column in the Boston Globe, Joseph P. Kahn wrote: “In rodeo, to ‘cowboy up’ means to suck it up in times of adversity. No boo-hooing. No namby-pamby fatalism. As one T-shirt slogan puts it, ‘Are You Gonna Cowboy Up or Just Lay [sic] There and Bleed?’ John Wayne never said it better.” A 1994 movie about a bull rider exposed the expression to a wider audience, according to Kahn. The reason a Boston journalist was writing about cowboy up was that members of the 2003 Boston Red Sox had made the expression a rallying cry for the team. Hard as they cowboyed, they fell to the Yankees again, though. This year, playing baseball instead of cowboying up, they won the World Series. How much did he tip? We’ve heard about road rage and office rage and various other kinds of rage. Now comes this report from the Associated Press: “Man Charged With Sandwich Rage in Houston — Road rage? Try restaurant rage. A 34-year-old man apparently angry that his $6 steak and cheese sandwich was too cold was arrested on a charge of threatening to kill the restaurant manager Wednesday. Police said the manager offered to reheat Devlin B. Nelson’s sandwich or make him a new one when he complained. Authorities allege he instead demanded a refund, threw the sandwich at the manager, then threatened to kill her and blow up the restaurant.” Wait for the mouthwash, Nellie: “The letters caused a stir among county leaders and the justices of the peace. ‘That letter is stronger than Nellie’s breath, but strictly to the point,’ said Justice of the Peace Charles Roberson.” Unfamiliar with Nellie’s breath — and a good thing, evidently — I called JP Roberson. “I’ve heard that expression all my life, and I’m nearly 70,” he said. “Instead of saying something is stronger than garlic, you say it’s stronger than Nellie’s breath.” He didn’t know the identity of the original Nellie. “She must have had some breath, though.”

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