1. ‘The game is up’
The origins of this phrase can be traced right back to Shakespeare, who coined it when writing his 1611 play Cymbeline. Shakespeare is known to have coined many words and expressions which we now have incorporated into the English language. This is hardly surprising given the fact that he was a phenomenal wordsmith whose way with words is still, I believe, to be matched by a modern playwright.
This passage in Act III: Scene III, in which this phrase occurs, is spoken by Belarius, who is discussing Euriphile’s fraud and deceit with her:
” Euriphile, Thou wast their nurse; they took the for their mother,
And every day do honour to her grave:
Myself, Belarius, that am Morgan call’d,
They take for natural father. The game is up”
Although the phrase is associated with betrayal, secrets and deceit being exposed and brought out into the open for all to be made aware, it also refers (obviously) to the ending of a sporting match, card game, board game etc. That part is rather self-explanatory, I believe.
2. ‘Get the sack’
It’s widely known that if you get the sack, you’ve been dismissed from your job. This expression is almost certainly one which was coined by the lower classes, who would quite often find themselves in positions of unemployment due to the fluctuating nature of availability of work.
Tradesmen and workers up until the 20th century would often be reliant on gaining work based not just on the experience that they had, but also on the tools that they owned in order to complete the work as employers were reluctant to supply these items to them due to the high rates of theft arising as a result of unemployment (to an extent, this is true today, although not likely for theft reasons – more likely due to preference of tradesmen). If a trade worker was found to be a less than satisfactory worker, if there were not enough positions remaining at a company, or if a factory were to close down, these men would be given sacks in which to pack any belongings that they owned and leave with them.
The first reference to this in the English language is in Charles Westmacott’s The English Spy from 1825, in which it is stated that “I shall get the zack for telling on ye.” Alternatives are later suggested by John Hotten, one of various authors of what were known as ‘slang dictionaries’. He claims that ‘get the empty’ and ‘get the bag’ were also acceptable alternatives for individuals who were fired during the mid 19th Century.
3. ‘Give up the ghost’
Usually, this is an expression of frustration when something breaks at an inopportune moment, but it is also used in a rather general manner to describe death, albeit rather callous. When first researching, I was quite excited about the potential origin that this phrase would have – could it have something to do with hauntings? Do its roots lie shrouded in mystery? – but was quite disappointed to learn that there is really nothing that remarkable about it at all. It appears in Miles Coverdale’s version of the Bible (most likely based on William Tyndale’s translation, which saw him executed) which was penned in 1535. The expression appears in the book of Acts 12:23; “Immediately the angelle of the LORD smote him, because he gaue not God the honoure: And he was eaten vp of wormes, and gaue vp the goost” which refers to a physical being literally dying.
The expression does not appear to have been used in a metaphorical context until the 19th Century. It is recorded in many different literary works from the period, but I believe that James Kirke Paulding’s Westward Ho! provides a rather beautiful description of an inanimate object incapable of life giving up the ghost: “At length it gave up the ghost, and, like an over-cultivated intellect, became incurably barren.”
4. ‘Go berserk’
A berserker was a name given to the bravest, strongest ferocious of Viking warriors. The Viking reputation as a fierce race of people is derived from the acts and methods of fighting which were adopted by the berserker warriors, who are recorded as snarling like bears and gnawing their shields in order to frighten their enemies. However, by 1100 AD it appears that these warriors had become all but obsolete in Britain as there are no mentions of them in the English language until the 18th Century. Whether they actually died out or were encouraged to adopt the practices of an advancing society is unknown; the name may well still have been used to describe the King’s most fierce warriors during the Medieval period, however due to the lack of surviving documents there is no room for speculation.
It is Walter Scott who appears to have caused the word to resurface in his 1822 novel Pirate where he states that “the berserkars were so called from fighting without armour” which is a reference to the belief that they fought with their vests open in order to demonstrate bravery.
It wasn’t until 1908 that the word was used with no reference to the Viking people and was instead used to figuratively describe people who behaved in a manner which was frenzied or violent manner. Rudyard Kipling wrote in Diversity of Creatures “You went Berserk…you’ll probably be liable to fits of it all your life”
The first use of the expression ‘go berserk’ appears in a 1919 edition of the La Crosse Tribune and Leader-Press which describes how, although the First World War had come to an end, there was mass hunger: “with hungry Russians crowding in from the east, a hungry Germany may shortly toss its new conventions after the old and go berserk in the teeth of the cannon.”
5. ‘Guts for garters’
This is an expression which originated in Britain but, although used to a great extent here, it is rarely used anywhere else in the world. Originating in the Middle Ages, the origin is just as disgusting as the phrase itself would suggest: disembowelment was a popular punishment during this period in British history, and the first reference in print to this expression comes from Robert Greene’s 1592 The Scottish Historie of James the Fourth where the King is supposed to have said “Ile make garters of thy guttes Thou villaine” shortly after this period ended, but disembowelment was still, but rarely, practiced. Whether the guts of disemboweled men were actually used as garters is unknown, but due to the odd practices of the time it would not be too far a stretch of the imagination to believe that someone may attempt to use parts of the body in a would-be practical or showy manner – particularly if they were a King who had just beaten a particularly hated enemy. For instance, Charles II hated Oliver Cromwell so much that he had his body exhumed and rehung for his own personal satisfaction, and his head placed for all to see outside the site of his father’s trial. He also used to distill human skulls and use liquid from them to cure ailments he may have. In essence, whilst condemning cannibalism in the savage jungles abroad, he was all too happy to practice it himself. The first reference in print to this expression comes from Robert Greene’s 1592 The Scottish Historie of James the Fourth where the King is supposed to have said “Ile make garters of thy guttes Thou villaine”.