Minden Press-Herald

Wednesday
Oct 01st

So Now You Know

A couple of times in the past, I've written columns about some of the oldest sayings of our culture.

During a conversation the other day with Sports Editor Gregg Parks, an old term was heard. And me, being the constant nerd that I am, had to tell the origin of said term.

In the spirit of that conversation, here are a few more nuggets I've found thanks to the wonder of Google.

Enjoy.

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.

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'.

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.

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.

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.

EARMARKED

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

FAST AND LOOSE

Traditionally it you wanted archers to halt and not shoot arrows you shouted 'fast!'. Archers also 'loosed' arrows. So if you played fast and loose you said one thing and did another.

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 COLORS

If a fleet won a clear victory the ships would sail back to port with their colors 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.

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.

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.

SCAPEGOAT

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.

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' or 'square dealing'. 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.

STRAIGHT LACED

This phrase was originally STRAIT laces. 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.

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.

TAKEN ABACK

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.

TRUE BLUE

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.

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'.

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.

WIDE BERTH

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.

WILLY-NILLY

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.

So now you know.

Josh Beavers is the publisher of the Minden Press-Herald.

 

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