Where Words Come From

September 27, 2019


This phrase means peaceful and undisturbed; a time of ease or quiet enjoyment. The saying comes from the frequent repetition of the phrase in bulletins issued during the War Between the States, 1861-1865. The original expression has been ascribed to General George B. McClellan (1826-1885) who was in command of the Army of the Potomac in 1861 and 1862. He received much criti- cism in Washington because of his lack of aggressiveness in pursuing the war against the rebels of the South.

The phrase sometimes is used as “All quiet along the Potomac,” from the poem, “The Picket-Guard” (1861) by Ethel Lynn Beers.

Following is the sixth stanza:

“All quiet along the Potomac tonight, No sound save the rush of the river, While soft falls the dew on the face of the dead,

The picket’s off-duty forever.”


In the United States, one “raises Cain” when he or she causes a distur- bance. The saying refers to the first child of Adam and Eve, Cain who killed his brother, Abel. Cain was jealous of Abel and his anger knew no end. Cain’s name has been associated ever since the Bible was written with losing one’s temper and causing a real problem in society.


A person, with not much to do, is said to be “at loose ends.” During the days of the windjammers and other great sailing vessels, rigging grew more complex. On many ships, there were, literally, hundreds of ropes.

If these ropes had been left free to unravel, a hopeless tangle would have resulted, so every ship’s master prided himself on the good condition of his “ends” – the taped end of his ropes on board. And when other work was

slack, the captain might just put his sailors to work repairing the loose ends of the ropes. Such a ship’s master was accused by his men of ordering such work to keep the men occupied and they were working at the “loose ends of the ropes.”

Have you ever been at loose ends with just busy-work to do?

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