Like a dog falling off a log in a fog.
Dear Word Detective: Ever heard the saying “like beating birds in a bucket”? I never had until today and still not sure what it means — futile? Like “herding cats”? — Kelly Gessel.
No, I had never heard that expression, and now I’m sorry I have. In fact, even though it’s early, I’m ready to nominate it for the most unpleasant simile of the year. My guess is that it’s someone’s attempt to “improve” on the classic American idiom “like shooting fish in a barrel,” meaning “extremely easy; no challenge and with no risk of failure.” Christine Ammer, in her collection of idioms “Have a Nice Day; No Problem!” (1992), notes that “Why anyone would want to shoot fish at all, let alone when they are inside a barrel, is not known.” As someone who had a neighbor for several years whose idea of a good time was shooting at fish in his own pond with a shotgun, I know the answer to that one. The guy was a violent and sadistic moron. But I don’t think “like shooting fish in a barrel” ever referred to an actual practice; it’s just a deliberately hyperbolic metaphor for an endeavor in which failure is impossible.
English has a broad range of figures of speech to describe a task or situation that is extremely easy, many of which are, like “fish in a barrel,” purely jocular in origin, such as the 19th century Americanism “easy as falling off a log.” Interestingly, many of the more colorful phrases once widely used have disappeared over time.
Back around the16th century, for instance, we spoke of a very easy task as being done “with a wet finger,” probably referring to licking a finger either to turn a page in a book or to rub out something written on a chalk board (“How easily … even with a wet finger, (as we say) could God … have overturned Jacob,” 1690). Similarly, something (or someone) easily obtained was said to be available “for the whistling,” from a whistle used as a summoning call (“He may be had for whistlinge,” 1655). The 16th century also saw the use of “sure card” meaning either a winning quality or a person whose influence, once invoked, would ensure success (“A cleare conscience is a sure card,” 1580). This sense of “card,” a metaphorical high-value playing card, is still very much in use when we speak of a politician “playing” a certain “card,” or issue, for influence (“Western newspapers have been full of speculation as to whether China was playing a ‘Soviet card’ against the United States,” 1982). For those who could not metaphorically even be roused to an activity as leisurely as card games, there was the term “bedwork,” meaning a task so easy that it could be done in bed (“They call this bed-worke, mappry, Closet warre,” Shakespeare, 1609).
Historians would probably differ on just why, but the 19th century seems to have seen an explosion of terms meaning “easy as pie” (from “pie” as a symbol of something nice and pleasurable). So the 1800s saw the advent of terms for easy certainties such as “picnic,” “playwork,” “walkover,” “pudding,” “snip,” “pinch,” “sitter” (from “sitting target”), “breeze,” “kid stuff,” “soda” (in Australia), “doddle,” “wrap-up,” “snack,” “stroll,” “waltz” and “walkthrough.”
Most such phrases are not that hard to plumb, but a few of the breed are a bit mysterious. “Bludge,”1940s slang for an easy job, came from the slang term “bludgeoner” (or “bludger”) which originally meant a prostitute’s pimp (and enforcer) but eventually came to mean simply “parasite or loafer.” At the other end of the social scale, we had “five-finger exercise,” originally a simple piano practice piece, later expanded to mean anything very easy.
One of the most popular 19th century slang terms for “something very easy” or “a sure thing” is simple to explain in itself, but it bore a mysterious descendant. “Cinch,” meaning the strap that secures a saddle to a horse, appeared in English in 1866, adapted from the Spanish “cincha.” Within a few years, “cinch” was being used as slang to mean “a sure thing, easily done” (“The recent progress in bacteriological science … seemed to make the diagnosis a cinch,” 1911), invoking the security of a saddle tightly “cinched.” So far, no problem. But within a few years, “cinch” in this sense had been extended into “lead-pipe cinch” for reasons that remain a major etymological mystery. There have been dozens of colorful explanations proposed, but no one has ever actually proven where that “lead pipe” came from or how it adds to “cinch.” It may come from the solidity of anything made of lead, or the use of a lead pipe as a very convincing weapon in a fight, but we may never know for sure. I guess that proves not everything is so easy after all.