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'hold your mouth right'
How widespread is the idiom?
2014/10/29
10:29am
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EmmettRedd
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My students in class this morning had not heard the ‘hold your mouth right’ as an idiom. It appears that many of the online dictionaries do not have a good definition. Michael Jordan in this video does not use the term but describes my understanding, i.e. sometimes when you are really concentrating in trying to do something, your mouth assumes a stressed shape without your conscious effort. If you succeed at your task, you must have held your mouth right. If not, you did not hold your mouth right.

Have you heard it? And, where?

2014/10/29
1:06pm
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Dick
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I have heard this all my life.  Mostly now from older people. (50 and up)  Your explanation makes sense but I have always taken it to mean, “If you have some luck.”

2014/10/29
1:50pm
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Heimhenge
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I have never heard that expression. Grew up in the Midwest, living in Arizona now. EmmettRedd’s (and Jordan’s) explanation seemed to make sense at first, then I looked at Ngrams and checked a few of the usages. Most of the earliest references have some connection to hunting/fishing/camping and related activities. No real clues to the etymology though. Probably just one of those many colloquialisms that made it into common use, and for which the origin is lost in the haze of time.

2014/10/29
3:57pm
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EmmettRedd
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Heimhenge said

I have never heard that expression. Grew up in the Midwest, living in Arizona now. EmmettRedd’s (and Jordan’s) explanation seemed to make sense at first, then I looked at Ngrams and checked a few of the usages. Most of the earliest references have some connection to hunting/fishing/camping and related activities. No real clues to the etymology though. Probably just one of those many colloquialisms that made it into common use, and for which the origin is lost in the haze of time.

Here is a snippet view of a 1942 ‘dictionary’ from the Ngram above that appears to support my understanding of the phrase. I wish I could have thought of the word ‘grimace’.

BTW, I keep having an image of Opie Taylor on the Andy Griffith Show holding his tongue out while trying something difficult. Sure enough, it is discussed here.

2014/10/29
4:39pm
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Heimhenge
New River, AZ, USA
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EmmettRedd said: BTW, I keep having an image of Opie Taylor on the Andy Griffith Show holding his tongue out while trying something difficult. Sure enough, it is discussed here.

Thanks for that link. I was always a fan of the Andy Griffith show, and thought I’d seen pretty much all the episodes, but not the one where Opie kills a bird … and I definitely would have remembered that scene, since I had a similar experience when my dad let me loose unsupervised with a single-shot lever-action 22. When I watched that clip, it was a Déjà vu that dragged me back to my childhood. And like Opie, I too shed tears. Might be why I never got into hunting, which made me a bit of an outcast among my Midwestern friends.

But I digress. Getting back to the main topic, the etymology is starting to make more sense to me now. I suspect that what you do with your mouth/tongue/lips when you’re focused and concentrating may be a universal human trait. Makes me wonder if there are equivalent phrases in other languages.

2014/10/30
5:20am
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deaconB
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I hear it fairly often, in a slightly different form.  Such and so will work, they say, if you put your tongue in the right corner of your mouth.

I’ve mostly heard it in the last 15-20 years, and mostly among programmers, but sometimes am9ong mister-fixits, who tend to be a superset of the same people.  No geographic context; mostly encountered online.

2014/11/06
7:26pm
VTRoots
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This was a favorite of my Great Grandfather, long since passed.  We spent time with him in the 1960s and early 70’s.  He was retired in Arkansas and had lived in the midwest.  Whenever someone was struggling with a task, he would criticize jokingly “You’re not holding your mouth right,” indicating an obviously irrelevant act that would help accomplish the task, hence the joke.

An uncle from the same family was fond of suggesting that feats involving strength could be accomplished if one would yell or grunt properly, again obviously irrelevant to the task.

But is it irrelevant?  Sometimes unconscious acts, like moving your tongue, contorting facial muscles, or making a noise, do seem a natural part of accomplishing a task involving concentration.  Perhaps there is a homespun knowledge here behind or beyond the colloquialism, and one day neuroscience will take all the fun out of it.

2014/11/06
8:59pm
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Heimhenge
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VTRoots said: An uncle from the same family was fond of suggesting that feats involving strength could be accomplished if one would yell or grunt properly, again obviously irrelevant to the task.

I have to wonder if that might be related to the martial arts concept of Kiai. See this. The difference between Kiai and “moving your tongue” could be just a matter of degree … two points on the spectrum of mental/physiological feedback?

2014/11/06
10:54pm
VTRoots
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I was also thinking of professional tennis and weightlifting as examples of the yell.  Expulsion of air can compliment muscle exertion, or it could be the psychological or spiritual link in your martial arts example, but the main  point is that we are thinking along the same lines regarding the “spectrum of mental/physiological feedback.”

You are also proving my suspicion/fear that science will take the fun out of my Grandfather’s joke and Opie Taylor’s physical humor.  The wonder is that this colloquialism recognized the “universal human trait” independent of martial arts training or modern neuroscience, making this thread’s original search for the history of the idiom all the more interesting.

2014/11/07
4:37am
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deaconB
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Elan Musk says that AI done badly is a greater threat to mankind than nuclear weapons.  (Sounds like Tesla owners should avoid cruise control.) Perhaps we need a statute forbidding AI in devices with mouths and tongues.

Or one forbidding Artificial Stupidity in government.  Not that we haven’t enough of the real thing….

2015/04/03
7:28am
JB
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A non-Southerner nearly took me to personnel for sexual harassment when I used this phrase, about 15 years ago. It was in a phone conversation and, when she became upset that I’d said it, it dawned on me that she thought I was talking dirty. The thought of that flustered me and I wasn’t able to provide a completely acceptable explanation when she pressed me, “What do you mean by that?” 

“Uh, it’s just an expression I’ve heard.”

“What does it mean?”

“It’s just a funny expression I’ve heard carpenters use.”

“But, what did you mean by it?”

“Nothing really, it’s just something you say when something isn’t working.”

She was clearly upset. I had to call her back later and offered a better-thought-out explanation, at which time she said, “I’m glad you called back, I was just about to contact Human Resources.”

Now, I’m not going to say that all females should avoid the corporate world but, anyone who thinks something sexual at any mention of the mouth has no business in the workplace.

stupid dirty minded PC hero wanted to get me fired

2015/04/03
7:37am
JB
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it burns my toast every time I think of it. stay home and watch some more porn, some of us are busy trying to do our jobs. it also speaks to the fickleness of the fairer sex. had it been George Clooney on my end, my colleague in California probably would have thought the expression charming. she’s probably holding some political office now.

2017/05/22
5:32am
JimA
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Years ago I had the great fortune to work for my Uncle Don, a successful, hard working farmer in Central Kansas.  It was from my Uncle Don that I learned what is meant by “its all in how you hold your mouth’.

We were working on a piece of machinery under the brutal Kansas sun that had several rusted-on bolts that had to be removed.  I was 19 at the time and in very good shape, with all the pulling and swearing and GRIMACING I could not budge the resistant bolts.  My Uncle, probably at least in his late 50’s at the time, came to my aid, he didn’t say anything, just reached down and took the wrench from my hand and put it back on the bolt, turned the wrench and without a perceptible effort on his part, the bolt came loose.  I looked at him and asked how he did that, his response was – ‘its all in how you hold your mouth’.

From that time forward I took that saying to mean that all the bitching (swearing), moaning (grunting) and complaining (grimacing) doesn’t mean a hill of beans compared to the simple desire and steal minded effort to get something done. 

Jim

2017/05/22
6:04am
JimA
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Please excuse the misspelling – tried to correct it but the site would not allow me