I was almost supernaturally compelled to write to Grant and Martha, the hosts of A Way With Words, after I heard a listener who spoke Swahili call in to ask why people say “slept like a log” because, obviously, logs don’t sleep much. He was calling as much to find out the origin of the phrase as he was to let Grant and Martha know he’d heard the same phrase in Swahili, an expression so full of lee-lee-loo-loos that it sounded like a lyric from a Paul Simon song.
Almost immediately, the expression sometimes used to describe snoring, “sawing logs,” popped into my head. My brain makes random connections like that so often now that I can hardly speak a coherent thought any more. And I’m pretty sure that’s all it was, a random thought, so I fought down the urge to write to them and went back to half-listening to the show, half-reading the paper. Other than the mention of logs, the two phrases are probably so unrelated it wouldn’t even make sense to point it out.
I felt the same compelling urge yesterday when I was reading a biography of Harry Truman and just about jumped out of my chair when Truman was quoted as saying, “I know every one of these 50 fellows. There isn’t one of them has enough sense to pound sand in a rat hole.” I’d heard lots of people use the phrase “go pound sand” as a way of telling them to get lost or take a flying leap.
This was not a phrase I thought I would ever get Grant or Martha to talk about on their show, however, because the way I’d heard it used it didn’t end with “rat hole” but an entirely other kind of hole. In the military, where I’d first heard the phrase, “go pound sand” was a substitute for a much more emphatic phrase urging you to seek carnal knowledge with yourself. Grant and Martha will occasionally explore military jargon, but I’ve never heard them consider the more colorful language of the martial arts, and so far as I knew the version I’d heard was the original.
Truman’s version, though, predates the phrase I heard. What’s more, he was not a man known to sanitize his language when he was riled up, and on the occasion he used “pound sand in a rat hole” he was up for re-election and everyone in the country, including everyone on his staff, and his wife, and his daughter, were doubtful he would win. The fifty fellows he was talking about were fifty political writers commissioned by Newsweek magazine to speculate who would win the election, and every one of them said Dewey would win, and Truman would lose. Under the circumstances, if Truman knew the grungier version I knew, I think he would have used it.
But he didn’t, and when my brain made the random connection between “sleeping like a log” and “sawing logs” I was reminded about finding the phrase “pounding sand in a rat hole” and the possible connection with the phrase I’d heard. See what I mean about the convoluted way my brain wanders amongst the verbal undergrowth? It’s a wonder anyone understands what I’m saying. Or maybe they don’t, and I don’t realize it only because I’m off in my own little world. If so, please don’t try to lead me out; I’m actually quite happy here.
Anyway, I keep forgetting how this thing called the internet can sometimes find an answer to questions like this, and sure enough, when I googled “pound sand” I got this from the Urban Dictionary:
The origin of the expression go pound sand is from a longer expression, not to know (have enough sense to) pound sand down a rathole. Filling rat holes with sand is menial work, and telling someone to pound sand down a hole is like telling them to go fly a kite. The expression dates to at least 1912 and is common in the midwestern United States
WordOrigins.org cited a 1912 publication called Dialect Notes that quoted the phrase, “He wouldn’t know enough to pound sand in a rat-hole; so don’t get him.” And none other than William Safire, while attempting to track down the same phrase in a column for The New York Times, cited the Dictionary of American Regional English:
DARE asked Americans across the nation how they would end the sentence “He hasn’t sense enough to. . . .” Among the most colorful answers were “to pour water [or sand] out of a boot with directions on the heel and the toes cut;” “to lap salt and drool;” “to pack guts to a hog;” “to tie his own shoelaces;” and “to find his rear end with both hands and a road map.” By far the most frequent was “to come in out of the rain,” with “to pound sand down a rat hole” finishing a strong second.
He also noted that the phrase has morphed from the original meaning that described someone with no sense, to describing something that was a waste of time, the connection with the phrase as I originally heard it in the military. The wheel comes around, the circle is complete, and I can now sleep soundly without that one waking me up in the middle of the night any longer.