Today’s internet search engines are so sophisticated and powerful that we can use them to detect the originators of all words, phrases and ideas. For the first time we can really know our onions, often better than those who are currently considered experts on etymology and idioms and – more importantly- all other areas of scholarship where authors make claims about who was first to coin a phrase, term or concept.
Allow me to demonstrate my inexpert-expertise.
The phrase to ‘know your onions’, according to currently accepted wisdom, arose in the USA sometime in the first half of the twentieth century (Ammer 1997) out of a mid 1920s craze for making up funny comparisons like the phrase “bees knees” (Drowne and Huber 2004), or else from undated cockney rhyming slang link-rhyming 'onion rings' with 'things' (Brewers 2012). Another favourite knowledge-gap filling mythical claim of the so called 'experts' is that the phrase arose from widespread public admiration of the knowledgeable Oxford Dictionary lexicographer C.T.Onions, who co-edited the Oxford English Dictionary in 1933 (Oliver 2008).
Those explanations are all wrong guesses.
Internet date detection (ID) surpasses such ill-informed guess work and allows us to really know our onions about the phrase 'to know your onions', in all its varieties, because Google gets us back to before the subsequent claimed fame of C.T. Onions in the 1930’s and before the roaring twenties. Moreover it shows us that the phrase appears to have nothing whatsoever to do with rhyming cockneys. Simply by using Google, I got back further than anyone else to date and discovered The Postal Record (1908, p.27), which informs us in rhyme that:
‘Billy knows his onions, He Is not troubled with corns or bunions. He travels along at a good, fair gait; Unless the roads are bad, he is never late’.
Moreover, Google takes us back two centuries earlier to 1700 as an only just about plausibly possible, unintentionally humorous, source of the ‘know your onions’ idiom (Dampier 1700, p.127):
‘…and though here are plenty of Pot Herbs. Yet I know the Names of none, but Onions, of which they have a great abundance…’
Google’s Ngram viewer is one place to begin finding the earliest discoverable source of terms phrases and concepts in order to verify knowledge. Try it out and you might just find yourself strangely rewarded with an unexpected opportunity to bust myths and fallacies. However, for a deeper, more accurate and fine grained non-expert-expert analysis you can be rather more certain of really knowing your onions if you dig manually using my ID method to best exploit the technology of Google books and its amazing library project. Let me show you how it’s done here on BestThinking. Click: Sutton (2013)
Ammer, C. (1997) The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston, Mass.Houghton Mifflin.
Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2012). London. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd.
Dampier, W. (1700) A Supplement of the Voyage Round the World: Voyages and Descriptions Vol. II. London.James Knapton.
Drowne, K. M. and Huber, P. (2004) The 1920s Westport, Conn. Greenwood Press.
Oliver, H. (2008) March Hares and Monkeys’ Uncles: Origins of the Words and Phrases we use in Everyday Life. London.Metro Publishing.
The Postal Record (1908). National Association of Letter Carriers. Volumes 21-22. Page 27.