The Meaning Behind the Old Sayings Part #1

207609_481698821870924_559682733_nThe other day, I posted a cartoon on our Facebook page. Since then I had been wondering about the etymology behing “to let the cat out of the bag”. Knowing the meaning was just not enough. 🙂 After searching for some time on internet, I stumbled upon a website, localhistories.org, explaining the etymology of some old sayings by Tim Lambert. I will publish them in two parts because the list is quite long. I hope you enjoy and contribute to it! 🙂

 

ACHILLES HEEL

In Greek mythology Thetis dipped her son Achilles in the mythical River Styx. Anyone who was immersed in the river became invulnerable. However Thetis held Achilles by his heel. Since her hand covered this part of his body the water did not touch it and so it remained vulnerable. Achilles was eventually killed when Paris of Troy fired an arrow at him and it hit his heel.

AM I MY BROTHERS KEEPER?

Like many old sayings in the English language this one come from the Bible. In Genesis Cain murdered his brother Abel. God asked Cain ‘Where is your brother?’. Cain answered ‘I don’t know. Am I my brothers keeper?’.

APPLE OF MY EYE

This phrase also comes from the Bible. In Psalm 17:8 the writer asks God ‘keep me as the apple of your eye’.

BAKERS DOZEN

A bakers dozen means thirteen. This old saying is said to come from the days when bakers were severely punished for baking underweight loaves. Some added a loaf to a batch of a dozen to be above suspicion.

BEAT ABOUT THE BUSH

When hunting birds some people would beat about the bush to drive them out into the open. Other people would than catch the birds. ‘I won’t beat about the bush’ came to mean ‘I will go straight to the point without any delay’.

ON YOUR BEAM ENDS

On a ship the beams are horizontal timbers that stretch across the ship and support the decks. If you are on your beam-ends your ship is leaning at a dangerous angle. In other words you are in a precarious situation.

BEE LINE

In the past people believed that bees flew in a straight line to their hive. So if you made a bee line for something you went straight for it.

BEYOND THE PALE

Originally a pale was an area under the authority of a certain official. In the 14th and 15th centuries the English king ruled Dublin and the surrounding area known as the pale. Anyone ‘beyond the pale’ was seen as savage and dangerous.

BIG WIG

In the 18th century when many men wore wigs, the most important men wore the biggest wigs. Hence today important people are called big wigs.

BITE THE BULLET

This old saying means to grin and bear a painful situation. It comes from the days before anaesthetics. A soldier about to undergo an operation was given a bullet to bite.

THE BITER BEING BITTEN

This old saying has nothing to do with animals. In the 17th century a biter was a con man. ‘Talk about the biter being bitten’ was originally a phrase about a con man being beaten at his own game.

BITES THE DUST

This phrase comes from a translation of the epic Ancient Greek poem the Iliad about the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. It was poetic way of describing the death of a warrior.

BITTER END

Anchor cable was wrapped around posts called bitts. The last piece of cable was called the bitter end. If you let out the cable to the bitter end there was nothing else you could do, you had reached the end of your resources.

THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND

In Matthew 15:14 Jesus criticised the Pharisees, the religious authorities of his day, saying ‘they are blind leaders of the blind’.

BLUE-BLOOD

This means aristocratic. For centuries the Arabs occupied Spain but they were gradually forced out during the Middle Ages. The upper class in Spain had paler skin than most of the population as their ancestors had not inter-married with the Arabs. As they had pale skin the ‘blue’ blood running through their veins was more visible. (Of course all blood is red but it sometimes looks blue when running through veins). So blue-blooded came to mean upper class.

BOBBIES, PEELERS

Both these nicknames for policemen come from Sir Robert Peel who founded the first modern police force in 1829.

TO BOOT

If you get something to boot it means you get it extra. However it has nothing to do with boots you wear on your feet. It is a corruption of the old word bot, which meant profit or advantage.

BORN WITH A SILVER SPOON IN YOUR MOUTH

Once when a child was christened it was traditional for the godparents to give a silver spoon as a gift (if they could afford it!). However a child born in a rich family did not have to wait. He or she had it all from the start. They were ‘born with a silver spoon in their mouth’.

A BROKEN REED

This phrase is from Isaiah 36: 6. When the Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem one of them stood outside the walls and asked if they hoped for help from Egypt. He described Egypt as a ‘broken reed’.

CHAP

This word is derived from the old word Chapman that meant merchant or trader. It in turn was derived from ceapman. The old word ceap meant to sell.

CHOCK-A-BLOCK

When pulleys or blocks on sailing ship were pulled so tightly together that they could not be moved any closer together they were said to be chock-a-block.

COALS TO NEWCASTLE

Before railways were invented goods were often transported by water. Coal was transported by ship from Newcastle to London by sea. It was called sea coal. Taking coals to Newcastle was obviously a pointless exercise.

COCK A HOOP

This phrase comes from a primitive tap called a spile and shive. A shive was a wooden tube at the bottom of a barrel and a spile was a wooden bung. You removed the shive to let liquid flow out and replaced it to stop the flow. The spile was sometimes called a cock. If people were extremely happy and wanted to celebrate they took out the cock and put in on the hoop on the top of the barrel to let the drink flow out freely. So it was cock a hoop. So cock a hoop came to mean ecstatic.

COCK AND BULL STORY

This phrase was first recorded in the 17th century. It probably comes from an actual story about a cock and a bull that is now lost.

CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

This phrase comes from a play called The Birds by the Greek dramatist Aristophanes (c.448-385 BC). In the play the birds decide to build a utopian city called Cloud cuckoo land.

COPPER

The old word cop meant grab or capture so in the 19th century policemen were called coppers because they grabbed or caught criminals.

CROCODILE TEARS

These are an insincere display of grief or sadness. It comes from the old belief that a crocodile wept (insincerely!) if it killed and ate a man.

CUT AND RUN

In an emergency rather than haul up an anchor the sailors would cut the anchor cable then run with the wind.

WHAT THE DICKENS!

This old saying does not come from the writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870). It is much older than him! It has been around since at least the 16th century. Originally ‘Dickens’ was another name for the Devil.

DIFFERENT KETTLE OF FISH

In the past a kettle was not necessarily a device to boil water to make a cup of tea. A pot for boiling food (like fish) was also called a kettle. Unfortunately nobody really knows why we say ‘a different kettle of fish’.

DON’T LOOK A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH

This old saying means don’t examine a gift too closely! You can tell a horse’s age by looking at its teeth, which is why people ‘looked a horse in the mouth’.

These are an insincere display of grief or sadness. It comes from the old belief that a crocodile wept (insincerely!) if it killed and ate a man.

DOUBTING THOMAS

This phrase comes from John 20: 24-27. After his resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples. However one of them, named Thomas, was absent. When the others told him that Jesus was alive Thomas said he would not believe until he saw the marks on Jesus’ hands and the wound in his side caused by a Roman spear. Jesus appeared again and told Thomas ‘Stop doubting and believe!’

DOWN AT HEEL

If the heels of your shoes were worn down you had a shabby appearance.

DOWN AT HEEL

If the heels of your shoes were worn down you had a shabby appearance.

DUTCH COURAGE

In the 17th century England and Holland were rivals. They fought wars in 1652-54, 1665-67 and 1672-74. It was said (very unfairly) that the Dutch had to drink alcohol to build up their courage. Other insulting phrases are Dutch treat (meaning you pay for yourself) and Double Dutch meaning gibberish.

DYED IN THE WOOL

Wool that was dyed before it was woven kept its colour better than wool dyed after weaving of ‘dyed in the piece’.

EARMARKED

This comes from the days when livestock had their ears marked so their owner could be easily identified.

EAT DRINK AND BE MERRY

This old saying is from Ecclesiastes 8:15 ‘a man has no better thing under the sun than to eat and to drink and be merry’.

ESCAPED BY THE SKIN OF YOUR TEETH

This phrase comes from the Bible, from Job 19:20.

FEET OF CLAY

If a person we admire has a fatal weakness we say they have feet of clay. This phrase comes from the Bible. King Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a statue. It had a head of gold, arms and chest of silver, belly and thighs of bronze and it legs were of iron. However its feet were made of a mixture of iron and clay. A rock hit the statue’s feet and the whole statue was broken. The prophet Daniel interpreted the dream to be about a series of empires, all of which would eventually be destroyed. (Daniel 2:27-44).

FIDDLE WHILE ROME BURNS

There is a legend that when Rome burned in 64 AD Emperor Nero played the lyre (not the fiddle!). Historians are sceptical about the story.

FLASH IN THE PAN

Muskets had a priming pan, which was filled with gunpowder. When flint hit steel it ignited the powder in the pan, which in turn ignited the main charge of gunpowder and fired the musket ball. However sometimes the powder in the pan failed to light the main charge. In that case you had a flash in the pan.

FLY IN THE OINTMENT

This old saying comes from the Bible. In Ecclesiastes 10:1 the writer says that dead flies give perfume a bad smell (in old versions of the Bible the word for perfume is translated ‘ointment’).

FLYING COLOURS

If a fleet won a clear victory the ships would sail back to port with their colours proudly flying from their masts.

FREELANCE

In the Middle Ages freelances were soldiers who fought for anyone who would hire them. They were literally free lances.

FROM THE HORSES’S MOUTH

You can tell a horse’s age by examining its teeth. A horse dealer may lie to you but you can always find out the truth ‘from the horse’s mouth’.

GET THE SACK

This comes from the days when workmen carried their tools in sacks. If your employer gave you the sack it was time to collect your tools and go.

GILD THE LILY

This phrase is from King John by William Shakespeare. ‘To gild refined gold, to paint the lily is wasteful and ridiculous excess’.

GO THE EXTRA MILE

By law a Roman soldier could force anybody to carry his equipment 1 mile. In Matthew 5:41 Jesus told his followers ‘if somebody forces you to go 1 mile go 2 miles with him’.

GO TO POT

Any farm animal that had outlived its usefulness such as a hen that no longer laid eggs would literally go to pot. It was cooked and eaten.

GOLLY, GOSH

In the past it wasn’t polite to use the exclamation ‘God!’ Instead people said Golly! or Gosh! Sometimes they said ‘heck’ instead of Hell.

GOODBYE

This is a contraction of the words God be with ye (you).

HAT TRICK

This comes from cricket. Once a bowler who took three wickets in successive deliveries was given a new hat by his club.

HIDING YOUR LIGHT UNDER A BUSHEL

A bushel was a container for measuring grain. In Matthew 15:15 Jesus said ‘Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel but on a candlestick’.

HOBSONS CHOICE

This means to have no choice at all. In the 16th century and the early 17th century if you went on a journey you could hire a horse to take you from one town to another and travel using a relay of horses. (That was better than wearing out your own horse on a long journey over very poor roads). In the early 1600s Thomas Hobson was a man in Cambridge who hired out horses. However he would not let customers choose which horse they wanted to ride. Instead they had to ride whichever horse was nearest the stable entrance. So if you hired a horse from him you were given ‘Hobson’s choice’.

HOIST BY YOUR OWN PETARD

A petard was a type of Tudor bomb. It was a container of gunpowder with a fuse, which was placed against a wooden gate. Sometimes all things did not go to plan and the petard exploded prematurely blowing you into the air. You were hoist by your own petard.

HOLIER THAN THOU

This comes from the Bible, Isaiah 65:5, the Old Testament prophet berates people who say ‘stand by thyself, come not near me for I am holier than thou’.

BY HOOK OR BY CROOK

This old saying probably comes from a Medieval law which stated that peasants could use branches of trees for fire wood if they could reach them with their shepherds crook or their billhook.

HUMBLE PIE

The expression to eat humble pie was once to eat umble pie. The umbles were the intestines or less appetising parts of an animal and servants and other lower class people ate them. So if a deer was killed the rich ate venison and those of low status ate umble pie. In time it became corrupted to eat humble pie and came to mean to debase yourself or act with humility.

KICK THE BUCKET

When slaughtering a pig you tied its back legs to a wooden beam (in French buquet). As the animal died it kicked the buquet.

KNOW THE ROPES

On a sailing ship it was essential to know the ropes.

KNUCKLE UNDER

Once knuckle meant any joint, including the knee. To knuckle under meant to kneel in submission.

LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER

This is from Isaiah 53:7 ‘He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter’. Later this verse was applied to Jesus.

RESTING ON YOUR LAURELS, LOOK TO YOUR LAURELS

In the ancient world winning athletes and other heroes and distinguished people were given wreaths of laurel leaves. If you are resting on your laurels you are relying on your past achievements. If you need to look to your laurels it means you have competition.

A LEOPARD CANNOT CHANGE HIS SPOTS

This is another old saying from the Bible. This one comes from Jeremiah 13:23 ‘Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his spots?’.

LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG

This old saying is probably derived from the days when people who sold piglets in bags sometimes put a cat in the bag instead. If you let the cat out of the bag you exposed the trick.

LICK INTO SHAPE

In the Middle Ages people thought that bear cubs were born shapeless and their mother literally licked them into shape.

LILY LIVERED

Means cowardly. People once believed that your passions came from you liver. If you were lily livered your liver was white (because it did not contain any blood). So you were a coward.

A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME

This old saying comes from the Bible. In Ecclesiastes 10:20 the writer warns us not to curse the king or the rich even in private or a ‘bird of the air’ may report what you say.

LOCK, STOCK AND BARREL

This phrase comes because guns used to have 3 parts, the lock (the firing mechanism), the stock (the wooden butt of the gun) and the barrel.

A LONG SHOT

A long shot is an option with only a small chance of success. In the past guns were only accurate at short range. So a ‘long shot’ (fired over a long distance) only had a small chance of hitting its target.

LONG IN THE TOOTH

When a horse grows old its gums recede and if you examine its mouth it looks ‘long in the tooth’.

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One response to this post.

  1. Today, I went to the beachfront with my children.

    I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell
    to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab
    inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back!
    LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell someone!

    Reply

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