Gimbling in the Wabe – Nose Skin and the Age of Raccoons

The other day I was sending a correspondence to LitStack Editor-in-Chief Tee Tate, and I used raccoonsthe phrase, “it’s no skin off my nose”.  I use little idioms like this a lot, but every once in a while it hits me how absurd they can be once their usage falls away from their original meaning.

So I got to thinking, just what does “it’s no skin off my nose” mean, where did it come from?  I take it to mean that whatever the subject, I’m not being impacted all that much.  It’s not that I don’t care, it’s more that I don’t feel I have enough of a stake in the matter to make a judgment call on it.  But I had to ponder, why did this particular phrase come to mean that to me?

I searched my own understanding, seeking a logical meaning.  I have a vast repository of knowledge tucked away in my brain; words, phrases, come to me easily.  Knowing why, of from where, or how?  That’s a whole different question.  The connection of the words and phrases to their heritage is something I cannot recall at will.

To me, “it’s no skin off my nose” seemed to logically come from “keeping your nose to the grindstone”.  A grindstone is what millers use to grind grain into flour.  I had the notion that millers would lean close in to their grindstones to ensure the process was progressing adequately.  (Phrases.org states that keeping your nose to the grindstone “comes from the supposed habit of millers who checked that the stones used for grinding cereal weren’t overheating by putting their nose to the stone in order to smell any burning.”   I’m okay with that.)  So I could easily imagine that millers sometimes would get too close, and might sometimes lose some skin off their nose when they weren’t careful.  Ouch!

So “it’s no skin off my nose” would mean that things were progressing normally so that particular miller felt no compunction in having to get close enough to get his nose scuffed.  The assumption is that there was no need to risk harm in order to check on something – that he had no stake in making that particular judgment, at least to the point of flirting with potential nasal harm.  It made sense to me.

But was that right?  I’m not vain enough to assume I was right.  So I did some searching.  Superficial, yes, but it wielded some answers.  Or… it wielded some potential answers.  Just like the proverbial game of telephone, where what is uttered at the start of the chain is not necessarily at all like how it ends up, often explanations for phrases and idioms contain the caveat of “we think it used to mean” rather than any definitive answer.

I found out that “it’s no skin off my nose” is often paired or compared with “by the skin of my teeth” and “it’s no skin off my back”.  Some sources say one is British usage where another is American, but usually the comments that follow such assertions are filled with “but I’ve only heard the one and I live in the other place”.  I’ll sidestep the notion that one particular body part having skin that is not being risked does not equate with parallel usage with a different body part, and instead concentrate on the “nose” aspect of the idiom.

The English Language & Usage Stack Exchange website  was the first one (but by no means the only one) I saw that equated “it’s no skin off my nose” with boxing, because “boxers’ noses are the body part most prone to damage.”  No offense to the linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts who troll that site, but I like my explanation better.  On WordWizard.com there was some musing about it equating with not sticking your nose into someone else’s business.  They also mentioned the “nose to the grindstone” angle, but one poster dismissed it because the “no skin off my back” seemed to lend itself to punishment (i.e. whipping) and the grindstone had no punishment angle to it.  That was kind of gristly to me, but then again, ancient word usage was not always pretty.

From all my searching, and all the tangents into the other, seemingly related idioms, I still like my origin story better, so I think I’m going to stick with it.

But then I thought of a few other idioms that I really like.  “Whatever trips your trigger.”  That’s one of my favorites.  I find it very descriptive, and I don’t hear a lot of other people using it.  To me, it means, whatever causes you to commit to a particular action.  The cause to what will be the effect.  But Wiki.answers has a different explanation.  It purports that the phrase means “one who gets too excited and pulls the trigger on the gun too soon.”  Premature ejaculation in its broadest sense?  Fie!  No, this one I outright reject.  My usage is definitely the definitive one.

Then there’s another one of my favorite phrases; one I used to utilize a lot in my more folksy moments, but now I don’t feel like I can use at all due to its being misconstrued as being racially tinged.  “I haven’t seen you/it/that for a coon’s age.”  It means “a long time.”  We used that phrase all the time when I was young, growing up in Iowa.  All. The. Time.  It was based on the notion that raccoons live an extraordinary long time, for a varmint.  (A little bit of a stretch maybe.  According to PBS’ Nature authorities, raccoons live only 1 – 2 years in the wild – a relatively short time – but can live up to 20 years in captivity; for gray squirrels, it’s 6 years in a controlled environment but generally they only make it about 18 months in the wild, due to their propensity for being food and fodder for other critters/cars;  rabbits in captivity can live 8 – 10 years but in the wild… well, they are even less hardy than squirrels, most of ’em don’t even make it to their second month.  But the poor opossum? Even in captivity those homely things only are expected to live 2 – 4 years.  Bottom line?  “A coon’s age” does indeed have some kind of merit to it.)

But because some cretinous element of our society decided that “coon” would become a derogatory term for a backwoods rustic (perhaps due to the critter’s reputation for nocturnal thievery, sneakiness and acquisitive nature) and even more pointedly (and sadly) it has been used as a negative term for African Americans, it no longer is a phrase that can be idly used, no matter how appropriately or innocently.  According to the site StrightDope.com:

Unfortunately, many of those negative stereotypes were applied to black people, hence the derogatory term “coon,” first used in the 1850s but more commonly heard after 1890. Some etymologists speculate that the term was used because of the raccoon’s dark coloring rather than its real or imagined behavior. Whatever the case, the usage is highly offensive today – heck, it was highly offensive back then. For that reason, “in a coon’s age” makes many people uncomfortable, notwithstanding its innocent origin.

After I myself had a rather inopportune experience with how embarrassing the use of the term could be (well, I wasn’t embarrassed, but my kids were mortified), I decided that intent was not as important as perception, so I’ve stopped using the term “for a coon’s age”, even within the family (because I would hate for it to slip out at a time where it would make anyone uncomfortable).  With the use of language, one has to be accountable for what one says, for better or worse.  Standing on an academic pedestal, even on principle if nothing else, is not worth offending someone at whom the offense may not have been made, but was taken anyway.  After all, it’s not always about me.  Astonishing, yet oh, so true.

But it makes me sad.  I happen to really like raccoons.

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