Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Episode 150: Avoid It Like The Plague and Other Evolving Phrases Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 150: Avoid it Like the Plague and Other Evolving Idioms

Record Date: March 19, 2022

Air Date: March 23, 2022



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Have you heard someone use the phrase “Avoid it like the plague” recently, and then immediately wonder if that phrase even has the same meaning anymore, given the western response to COVID?

Well, for our 150th episode, we wanted to have a conversation about a few phrases that may have a waning shelf life. So strap in for a completely different experience this week. 


Merriam Webster notes 


Our language is liberally stocked with words borne of technologies no longer in use.

End Quote

Carbon Copy

Our first phrase is an example of that; carbon copy. Here’s an example sentence “that kid is a carbon copy of his mom”, Oxford English Dictionary says a carbon copy in its figurative usage is


An exact replica or repeat

End Quote

So in our example phrase, the child is a carbon copy because he looks like a younger version of his mom. This phrase comes to us from the late 1800s, according to Merriam Webster. They note the earliest use of carbon copy referred to a type of photographic print. 

Here’s an example from Vogel in the The Philadelphia Photographer (Philadelphia, PA), 1 Jul. 1867


Now, Braun in Dornach conceived the happy idea to use for the reproduction of these drawings, the carbon process, which admits of the admixture of any pigment to the chromate of gelatine. I saw a carbon print copy of a lead-pencil drawing which looked so exactly like a lead-pencil drawing that it took considerable time to convince me that it actually was done by the carbon process.

End Quote

Here’s another out of The Athanaeum (London, Eng.), 2 Apr. 1870


The result before us shows that a certain degree of success has attended the effort to get rid of the deadness and opacity which mar so many carbon copies, defects which cause us to prefer evanescent photographs.

End Quote

Merriam Webster says


In the 1870s carbon copy took on a new meaning, relating to making a copy of documents (hand-written or typed) through the use of inserting carbon paper (or tissue) between the document one was composing and a blank sheet of paper. 

End Quote

Here are two quick examples Merriam Webster used, the first out of 

Scribner’s Monthly (New York, NY), Jul. 1876


The tissue softened in water is laid directly on the iron-paper print, and both are heavily pressed together. Warm water is then used to separate them, and the carbon copy is finished.

End Quote

Here’s an example of the Chicago Daily Tribune, 7 Feb. 1888


When Mr. Converse asked him if he had not testified before the special grand jury that he had gone to Montgomery’s house to show him a carbon copy of the article Mr. Booth had prepared for the Times, the witness said: “Yes; I did that to shield myself.”

End Quote

We obviously don’t use that technology anymore, but we do use a form of carbon copy now. In fact, many of you listeners have used it this week. In your emails, you have a “To” field, where the email address of your recipient goes. But you also have a cc, and a bcc. The cc means carbon copy, and the name comes from the earlier forms of carbon copies. Blind carbon copy, or bcc, is used now when you are sending an email, but you don’t want all the recipients to see everyone else’s email addresses.

So I think this one might be going away in another generation or three because we’ve shortened the literal term to cc, and we don’t widely use the other carbon copy technologies any more. 

Sealed with a Kiss

This next one is hard to track down. We haven’t done a full episode on it because the origins are pretty jumbled. But we know humans have been sealing agreements with kisses for most of recorded history. 

In his book One Kiss or Two: In Search of the Perfect Greeting, Andy Scott wrote


In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul instructed followers to ‘salute one another with a holy kiss

End Quote 

Here’s an example of our specific phrase from a 1663 work


End Quote

Sealed with a kiss became a popular way to mark a love letter. It was often abbreviated S.W.A.K. Though the Phrase Finder at notes servicemen during WWII would sometimes use S.W.A.L.K., sealed with a loving kiss to denote an envelope with a love letter for a sweetheart. The site also added there was another, more risqué acronym, NORWICH, which meant (k)nickers off, ready when I come home. Which might be a primitive form of sexting. 

You may be familiar with a popular song in the 1960s called Sealed With a Kiss. The song has been covered numerous times, but the one I’ve heard most often on American radio stations is the version by Brian Hyland. It opens with the lines…


Though we've got to say Goodbye 

for the summer

Baby, I promise you this

I'll send you all my love

Every day 

in a letter

Sealed with a kiss

End Quote 

Shauna, do you still lick envelopes to seal them, or kiss them symbolically for a loved one? 

Even stamps have moved away from needing to be licked. Maybe we are moving away from putting our lips and tongues on random things. Or maybe I just desire that society moves away from that and I’m projecting. I don’t want to minimize the symbolic gesture that a kiss has. The actress Ingrid Bergman is credited as saying, “A kiss is a secret told to the mouth instead of the ear; kisses are the messengers of love and tenderness.”

I think that’s beautiful. But when it comes to kissing inanimate objects, perhaps we can blow a kiss instead of getting all up in there. 

Snail Mail

And since we were just talking about stamps, perhaps this is a good segue to evaluate our next phrase, snail mail. 

You might think snail mail is a retronym, or a word that was backward created when there became a need for more specification, like acoustic guitar only got the “acoustic” tag after the invention of the electric guitar forced us to have a name for the regular kind. But no, snail mail has been around long before email was a thing. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, snail mail as a colloquial term means


mail or post which takes a long time to be delivered

End Quote

Here’s an example out of the 

The term snail mail was definitely used to mock slow forms of mail delivery. I even found a steamboat named “Snail Mail” mentioned in the Feb 24, 1843 edition of the Yazoo City Whig out of Michigan. 

This phrase may not have been common when this steamboat started making its pleasure cruises, but it certainly wasn’t beyond the reach of the folks at the time to use the phrase when it suited them. 

Today, though, when we say snail mail we are using it a slightly different sense than our previous examples. The OED says,


the physical delivery of mail, as by the postal service, considered as slow in comparison to electronic mail

End Quote

I don’t expect we will get rid of the need for a postal service, but as we continue to find faster and more efficient ways to deliver messages and necessary goods, perhaps this phrase will begin to wane as well. 

I still want to talk about “let’s shake on it” and “avoid it like the plague” but first we want to thank today’s sponsors.

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

You can help support this educational artform and get awesome perks along the way! Tiers start at $3 a month, which get you our polls and community-only discussions, early access to the podcast, and the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. 

At $10 you’ll also get original digital artwork from Shauna once a month featuring exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. At $15, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe does every episode. And of course huge thanks goes to the top spot among our Patrons, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig-Lopez. Thank you so much to Mary and all of our patrons. 

If you want to help create Bunny Trails week after week, whatever your budget, we are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. 


Modern Uses


If you are listening to this, you have so far survived the worst plague of our lifetime. At least I hope it is. Well, there are those handful of people who were born during the ongoing years of the 1918 flu outbreak, but they were babies so I’m not counting that. These next two need some serious consideration in what I hope to soon be the aftermath of COVID.

Let’s shake on it

The handshake has long been a way to peacefully greet as well as seal deals. 

Here’s an excerpt from a National Geographic article published March 12, 2020


A popular theory on the handshake’s origin is that it began as a gesture of peace. Grasping hands proved you were not holding a weapon—and shaking them was a way to ensure your partner had nothing hiding up their sleeve. Throughout the ancient world, the handshake appears on vases, gravestones, and stone slabs in scenes of weddings, gods making deals, young warriors departing for war, and the newly dead’s arrival to the afterlife. In the literary canon, it stretches to the Iliad and the Odyssey.

End Quote

The article shows an image of a stone relief from the 8th century depicting the King of Assyria shaking hands with a Babylonian.

Our phrase seems to come from the concept of a handshake. Collins Dictionary notes “shake on it” means,


to shake hands in agreement, reconciliation, etc

End Quote

But during the height of the pandemic (yes, bold of me to assume that’s already happened) many governments were warning residents to stop the practice of touching each other as a greeting. No cheek-to-cheek kisses, no hand shakes, no nose touching, no forehead kisses. So what are the other options?

Elbow bump - Gross. I sneeze and cough there. I’m not touching that to someone else.

Foot taps - Who am I, David Beckham? Do I look like Cristiano Renaldo? No. I don’t have that kind of dexterity or balance. And I know some people are super particular about their shoes. I don’t want to anger that kind of person by scuffing up their kicks.

Fist bumps - I can handle that, though it seems almost as problematic as hand gripping. Maybe it isn’t as bad from a germ transmission viewpoint. 

The wave - There are tons of varieties of waves. You could do the regal wave like Queen Elizabeth, or the Texas Tech Red Raiders two-finger gun wave. Or perhaps we could just do jazz hands. I actually like that idea. In many forms of Sign Language the gesture of jazz hands means applause, and I like the idea of applauding when we see each other. So if it doesn’t cause too much confusion for those who rely on sign languages as their primary communication, I like jazz hands. If it will cause problems, I can get by with fist bumps. And hand sanitizer.

Avoid it like the Plague

This brings us to the last one for this week, the one I mentioned in the opener. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase “to avoid like the plague”, or “to shun like the plague” means, 


to avoid at all costs, to shun completely.

End Quote

They cite the first attestation as 1699 in William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude: In Reflections and Maxims Relating to the Conduct of Human Life


An able bad Man, is an ill Instrument, and to be shunn'd as the Plague.

End Quote

But during COVID, many of us heard of, or maybe even personally know, people who didn’t want to take simple precautions to stop the spread of the disease. And now when I hear someone say something like “avoid like the plague” I have to ask if they mean avoid it, or run towards it licking everything in sight. 

I include this one sort of tongue-in-cheek, because even though I feel like we might be using it wrong, a quick check on the Twitterverse shows this phrase is alive and well in the “avoid at all costs” area. But if you will allow me to cherry pick a post, Ano so gnosio genesis - username checks out for this post by the way - they say

Wrap up...

In February 1943, during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, Winston Churchill said “I always avoid prophesying beforehand, because it is much better policy to prophesy after the event has already taken place.” 

Predicting the future is hard. So you’ll forgive us if this episode ages like milk and all of these phrases are still popular in 100 years. But I think we’ve made the case that they *could*, or perhaps *should* fall out of favor. And if they do, we will look like geniuses. So take that Winston Churchill. 



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


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Recently, we asked our Patrons… What was the best animated movie from the 1990s that didn't come from Disney?

Anastasia, The Iron Giant, or Prince of Egypt. 

This one was close, but Anastasia pulled out the win. 

Emily said she immediately thought about “All Dogs Go To Heaven”, but alas, she looked it up and saw it came out in 1989.


I also would have voted for All Dogs Go To Heaven if it had been one of the options. But real quick, I have to ask forgiveness for an error here. I was recently reading an Esquire article ranking the worst to best Batman movies. Of the 15 they listed, 1993’s animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm came in at #5. I absolutely should have included this as an option. My apologies to Mark Hamill for not recognizing his genius take as the voice of the Joker with this film. 


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

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