The 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!
MAD AS A HATTER
This phrase comes from the fact that in the 18th and 19th centuries hat makers treated hats with mercury. Inhaling mercury vapour could cause mental illness.
This is a corruption of Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who became a follower of Jesus. In paintings she was often shown weeping tears of repentance. So she became associated with sentimentality.
This comes from the Saxon word moot or mote, which meant a meeting to discuss things. A moot point was one that needed to be discussed or debated.
NAIL YOUR COLOURS TO THE MAST
In battle a ship surrendered by lowering its flag. If you nailed your colours to the mast you had no intention of surrendering. You were totally loyal to your side.
This was originally a nickname for the poet Ambrose Philips (1674-1749) who was known for writing sentimental verse.
This is a corruption of eke name. The old word eke meant alternative.
NO REST FOR THE WICKED
This phrase comes from the Bible. In Isaiah 57:21 the prophet says: ‘there is no peace saith my God to the wicked’.
After it was woven wool was pounded in a mixture of clay and water to clean and thicken it. This was called fulling. Afterwards the wool was stretched on a frame called a tenter to dry. It was hung on tenterhooks. So if you were very tense, like stretched cloth, you were on tenterhooks.
This comes from John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost. In Hell the chief city is Pandemonium. In Greek Pandemonium means ‘all the devils’.
In 1637 John Milton wrote a poem called Lycidas, which includes the words ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new’.
PAY ON THE NAIL
In the Middle Ages ‘nails’ were flat-topped columns in markets. When a buyer and a seller agreed a deal money was placed on the nail for all to see.
PEARLS BEFORE SWINE
In Matthew 7:6 Jesus warned his followers not to give what is sacred to dogs and not to throw pearls (of wisdom) before swine (the ungodly).
According to legend a man named Leofric taxed the people of Coventry heavily. His wife, lady Godiva, begged him not to. Leofric said he would end the tax if she rode through the streets of Coventry naked. So she did. Peeping Tom is a much later addition to the story. Everybody in Coventry was supposed to stay indoors with his or her shutters closed. However peeping Tom had a sneaky look at Godiva and was struck blind.
In the Middle Ages and Tudor Times rents were sometimes paid in peppercorns because pepper was so expensive. Peppercorns were actually used as a form of currency. They were given as bribes or as part of a bride’s dowry.
A PIG IN A POKE
This is something bought without checking it first. A poke was a bag. If you bought a pig in a poke it might turn out the ‘pig’ was actually a puppy or a cat. (See Sold A Pup).
In the 16th and 17th century it was common to give your wife or daughter a small amount of money for for pins and other necessary things.
In the past all kinds of food went into a big pot for cooking. If you sat down to a meal with a family you often had to take ‘pot luck’ and could never be quite sure what you would be served.
THE POWERS THAT BE
This comes from Romans 13:1 when Paul says ‘the powers that be are ordained of God’.
PRIDE GOES BEFORE A FALL
This old saying comes from the Bible, from Proverbs 16:18 ‘Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall’.
PULL THE WOOL OVER MY EYES
In the 18th century it was the fashion to wear white, curly wigs. they were nick named wool possibly because they resembled a sheep’s fleece.
PULL OUT ALL THE STOPS
This saying comes from church organs. Pulling out a stop lets air flow through a pipe and make a sound.
RACK AND RUIN
Rack has nothing to do with the torture instrument. It is a modification of ‘wrack’ which was an alternative way of saying ‘wreck’.
READ THE RIOT ACT
Following a law of 1715 if a rowdy group of 12 or more people gathered, a magistrate would read an official statement ordering them to disperse. Anyone who did not, after one hour, could be arrested and punished.
Poachers and other unsavoury characters would drag a herring across the ground where they had just walked to throw dogs off their scent. (Herrings were made red by the process of curing).
This phrase comes from the days when official documents were bound with red tape.
RED LETTER DAYS
In the Middle Ages saints days were marked in red in calendars. People did not work on some saint’s days or holy days. Our word holiday is derived from holy day.
RING TRUE, RING OF TRUTH
In the past coins were actually made of gold, silver or other metals. Their value depended on the amount of gold or silver they contained. Some people would make counterfeit coins by mixing gold or silver with a cheaper metal. However you could check if a coin was genuine by dropping it. If it was made of the proper metal it would ‘ring true’ of have the ‘ring of truth’.
RUB SALT INTO A WOUND
This is derived from the days when salt was rubbed into wounds as an antiseptic.
RULE OF THUMB
This comes from the days when brewers estimated the temperature of a brew by dipping their thumb in it.
SALT OF THE EARTH
Is another Biblical phrase. It comes from Matthew 5:13 when Jesus told his followers ‘You are the salt of the Earth’.
In the Old Testament (Leviticus 16: 7-10) two goats were selected. One was sacrificed. The other was spared but the High Priest laid his hands on it and confessed the sins of his people. The goat was then driven into the wilderness. He was a symbolic ‘scapegoat’ for the people’s sins.
This has nothing to do with Scotland. Scot is an old word for payment so if you went scot free you went without paying.
TO SEE A MAN ABOUT A DOG
This old saying first appeared in 1866 in a play by Dion Boucicault (1820-1890) called the Flying Scud in which a character makes the excuse that he is going ‘to see a man about a dog’ to get away.
SENT TO COVENTRY
The most likely explanation for this old saying is that during the English Civil War Royalists captured in the Midlands were sent to Coventry. They were held prisoner in St Johns Church and the local people shunned them and refused to speak to them.
SET YOUR TEETH ON EDGE
This is from Jeremiah 31:30 ‘Every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge’.
Originally a shamble was a bench. Butchers used to set up benches to sell meat from. In time the street where meat was sold often became known as the Shambles. (This street name survives in many towns today). However because butchers used to throw offal into the street shambles came to mean a mess or something very untidy or disorganised.
This is a word used by members of a particular group. It identifies people as members of the group. It comes from the Old Testament Judges 12: 5-7. Two groups of Hebrews, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites fought each other. The Gileadites captured the fords over the River Jordan leading to Ephraim. If a man wanted to cross a ford they made him say ‘Shibboleth’ (a Hebrew word meaning ear of grain). The Ephraimites could not pronounce the word properly and said ‘Sibboleth’. If anyone mispronounced the word the Gileadites knew he was an enemy and killed him.
A shrift was a confession made to a priest. Criminals were allowed to make a short shrift before they were executed. so if you gave somebody short shrift you gave them a few minutes to confess their sins before carrying out the execution.
SHOW A LEG
This comes from the days when women were allowed onboard ships. When it was time for sailors to get out of their hammocks women would show a leg to prove they were females not members of the crew.
SHOW YOUR TRUE COLOURS
Pirate ships would approach their intended victim showing a false flag to lure them into a false sense of security. When it was too late for the victim to escape they would show their true colours-the jolly roger!
SOLD A PUP
If you bought a piglet the seller placed it in a bag or sack. Sometimes, with his hands out of sight, the seller would slip a puppy into the sack. If you were swindled in that way you were sold a pup.
SPINNING A YARN
Rope was made in ports everywhere. The rope makers chatted while they worked. They told each other stories while they were spinning a yarn.
SPICK AND SPAN
Today this means neat and tidy but originally the saying was spick and span new. A span was a wood shaving. If something was newly built it would have tell-tale wood chips so it was ‘span new’ spick is an old word for a nail. New spicks or nails would be shiny. However words and phrases often change their meanings over centuries and spick and span came to mean neat and tidy.
A Spinster is an unmarried woman. Originally a spinster was simply a woman who made her living by spinning wool on a spinning wheel. However it was so common for single women to support themselves that way that by the 18th century ‘spinster’ was a synonym for a middle-aged unmarried woman.
SPOIL THE SHIP FOR A HA’PENNY WORTH OF TAR
Originally ‘ship’ was sheep and the saying comes from the practice of covering cuts on sheep with tar.
A SQUARE MEAL
There is a popular myth that this saying comes from the time when British sailors ate of square plates. In reality the phrase began California in the mid-19th century and it simply meant a good meal for your money, as in the phrase ‘fair and square’. Later the saying made its way to Britain.
START FROM SCRATCH
This phrase comes from the days when a line was scratched in the ground for a race. The racers would start from the scratch.
This phrase was originally STRAIT laced. The old English word strait meant tight or narrow. In Tudor times buttons were mostly for decoration. Laces were used to hold clothes together. If a woman was STRAIT laced she was prim and proper.
THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW
This comes from Matthew 7:14. In the King James version of the Bible, published in 1611, he says: ‘Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth to life’. The old English word strait meant tight or narrow but when it went out of use the phrase changed to ‘STRAIGHT and narrow’.
STRIKE WHILE THE IRON IS HOT
This phrase comes from the days when blacksmiths lifted iron objects from the furnace and hammered it. They could only hammer the object into shape while the iron was hot, before it cooled down.
This comes from an old belief that swans, who are usually silent, burst into beautiful song when they are dying.
A buckle was a kind of small shield. Swash meant the noise caused by striking. Brash men struck their swords against their bucklers as they walked around town. So they became known as swashbucklers.
SWINGING THE LEAD
On board ships a lead weight was attached to a long rope. A knot was tied every six feet in the rope. The lead weight was swung then thrown overboard. When it sank to the seabed you counted the number of knots that disappeared and this told you how deep the sea was. Some sailors felt it was an easy job and ‘swinging the lead’ came to mean avoiding hard work. In time it came to mean feigning illness to avoid work.
TAKE SOMEBODY UNDER YOUR WING
In Luke 12:34 Jesus laments that he wished to gather the people of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings but Jerusalem was not willing.
If the wind suddenly changed direction a sailing ship stopped moving forward. It was ‘taken aback’, which was a bit of a shock for the sailors.
This is a corruption of St Audrey because cheap jewellery was sold at St Audrey’s fair in Ely, Cambridgeshire.
THORN IN MY SIDE
This comes from the Bible. In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul states that he was given a ‘thorn in my flesh’ to prevent him becoming proud. We are not told what the ‘thorn’ was, perhaps it was some form of illness.
THROUGH THICK AND THIN
This old saying was once ‘through thicket and thin wood’. It meant making your way through a dense wood and through one where trees grew more thinly.
THROW DOWN THE GAUNTLET
In the Middle Ages a gauntlet was the glove in a suit of armour. Throwing down your gauntlet was a way of challenging somebody to a duel.
TONGUE IN CHEEK
In the 18th century sticking your tongue in your cheek was a sign of contempt. It is not clear how speaking with your tongue in your cheek took on its modern meaning.
TOUCH AND GO
This old saying probably comes from ships sailing in shallow waters where they might touch the seabed then go. If so, they were obviously in a dangerous and uncertain situation.
In Celtic time’s people believed that benevolent spirits lived in trees. When in trouble people knocked on the tree and asked the spirits for help.
HAVE NO TRUCK WITH
Truck originally meant barter and is derived from a French word ‘troquer’. Originally if you had no truck with somebody you refused to trade with him or her. It came to mean you refused to have anything to do with them.
This phrase was originally true as Coventry blue as the dyers in Coventry used a blue dye that lasted and did not wash out easily. However the phrase became shortened.
TURN THE OTHER CHEEK
Jesus told his followers not to retaliate against violence. In Luke 6:29 he told them that if somebody strikes you on one cheek turn the other cheek to him as well.
TURN OVER A NEW LEAF
This means to make a fresh start. It mean a leaf of page of a book.
TURNED THE CORNER
Ships that had sailed past the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn were said to have ‘turned the corner’.
UP THE POLE
The pole was a mast of a ship. Climbing it was dangerous and, not surprisingly, you had to be a bit crazy to go up there willingly. So if you were a bit mad you were up the pole.
WARTS AND ALL
When Oliver Cromwell 1599-1658 had his portrait painted he ordered the artist not to flatter him. He insisted on being painted ‘warts and all’.
WASH MY HANDS OF
The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, refused to be involved in the death of an innocent person (Jesus). So he washed his hands in front of the crowd, symbolically disassociating himself from the execution.
WEAR YOUR HEART ON YOUR SLEEVE
In the Middle Ages knights who fought at tournaments wore a token of their lady on their sleeves. Today if you make your feelings obvious to everybody you wear your heart on your sleeve.
This phrase is said to come from an old belief that weasels could suck out the inside of an egg leaving its shell intact.
The ‘weigh’ is a corruption of the old word wegan which meant carry or lift.
Once criminals were hanged at Tyburn – west of London. So if you went west you went to be hanged.
A berth is the place where a ship is tied up or anchored. When the anchor was lowered a ship would tend to move about on the anchor cable so it was important to give it a wide berth to avoid collisions. Today to give someone wide berth is to steer clear of them.
This phrase is believed to be derived from the old words will-ye, nill-ye (or will-he, nill- he) meaning whether you want to or not (or whether he wants to or not).
WIN HANDS DOWN
This old saying comes from horse racing. If a jockey was a long way ahead of his competitors and sure to win the race he could relax and put his hands down at his sides.
WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF
In the ancient world grain was hurled into the air using a tool called a winnowing fork. Wind separated the edible part of the grain (wheat) from the lighter, inedible part (chaff). In Matthew 3:12 John the Baptist warned that on the judgement day Jesus would separate the wheat from the chaff (good people from evil).
Prince Edward, later Edward VI, had a boy who was whipped in his place every time he was naughty.
In Siam (modern day Thailand) white or pale elephants were very valuable. The king sometimes gave white elephant to a person he disliked. It might seem a wonderful gift but it was actually a punishment because it cost so much to keep!
A WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING
In Matthew 7:15 Jesus warned his followers of false prophets saying they were like ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ outwardly disarming.
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