Phrases we Use and Their Origins #7 – The G’s

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”.


Phrases we Use and Their Origins #6 – The F’s

1. ‘Face the Music’

This is a phrase which I have heard uttered many times throughout my life, most often in relation to being in trouble, or as a preemptive comment to prevent me from doing something which will land me in hot water. Quite often, the offender who will be facing the music has absolutely no idea what the reaction of the ‘conductor’ of their fate will be when they are summoned, and this is echoed in the fact that there are two possible origins for this phrase, but none are definite.

The first theory is that it arose in response to the act of officers being ‘drummed out’ of their barracks when they had disgraced themselves whilst serving in the Army. This is very plausible, as there is a long history of music featuring in Western military culture, particularly during battles. It would not be too far-fetched, then, to imagine an officer being marched out to the sound of drumming.

The second theory is that the phrase was borne out of the dramatic arts. Quite often, theatrical productions are accompanied by music played by an orchestra playing in the pit below the stage and therefore, apparently, it was said that actors were to face the music when the curtain went up. It is likely that, unlike the former, the phrase would be meant in a positive manner. The prospect of an opening night, however, could be considered daunting and could give rise to the saying being negative should the actor in question be a poor performer or if there should be fear and certainty surrounding the opening of the play.

Sadly, even the earliest citation of the phrase offers up no insight as to the origin of the phrase. The New Hampshire Statesman & State Journal entry from August 1834 states “Will the editor of the Courier explain this black affair. We want no equivocation – ‘face the music’ this time.” Although there is no definitive origin, the fact that the first of the two possibilities is definitively negative and involves procedure, and the quotation hinting at a sense of procedure and ceremony, I would be inclined to put more weight on the theory that officers were drummed out of their regiments as being the origin of the phrase.

2. ‘Field Day’

If one is having a ‘field day’, they are usually having a day which has been packed full of excitement or come across an opportunistic circumstance which could have potentially life changing consequences, big or small. This does not appear to be consistent with the origin of the expression, however.

The literal sense of the term is now one which is very rarely used, most likely down to the fact that the meaning has become distorted over time and is now so far removed from its root. The term was, in fact, used to describe a day which would be set aside for the military to conduct field manoeuvres which would revolve around the lower ranks becoming familiar with their role in acts of warfare and, usually, the officers spending the day in a tent eating, drinking and watching their every move. Occasionally, they would discuss tactics, however it is important to not that in the 18th Century, officers were not selected on merit but on standing, and quite often were neglectful in their duties and indulgent in their personal lives. The first reference to this appears in Scheme Equip. Men of War which was written in 17147: “these periodical Intervals of eating and drinking…are to the Citizens as it were Field Days, for improving their valour.”

A more specific reference to military matters can be found in The Edinburgh Advertiser, in an article from May 1776 which refers to officers performing duties in a more friendly than commandant manner: “The officers, on a general field day, instead of commanding, are obliged to coax them to go through their different manoeuvres.”

This term continued to be used in a military context throughout the 18th Century and early 19th Century, however by the mid-1900’s the phrase was becoming synonymous with any activity which occurred in a field, such as that referenced by Lord Byron in 1823 in Don Juan: “Sometimes a dance (though rarely on field days, For then the gentlemen were rather tired.” As such, activities which took place in fields became far more joyous activities than practicing for warfare, and as such it has a much more jovial meaning than that of its earlier days.'s_%22The_Picnic%22,_Brooklyn_Museum_IMG_3787.JPG

3. ‘Fifteen minutes of fame’

The origin of this phrase is rather surprising to those who don’t immerse themselves in the world of Art. For those who are familiar with Art, it would be unsurprising to learn that it was the artist and photographer Andy Warhol who coined the phrase in the process of showing a new exhibition in 1968.

Warhol was showing his premier exhibition on retrospection at a gallery in Stockholm. The catalogue for the show contained the phrase ‘In the future everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes,’ a prediction which certainly appears to have come true with the rising popularity of reality TV and the incredible power of social networking catapulting regular people into the spotlight.

Despite the fact that Andy Warhol appears to have coined a phrase which would see him remain an anonymous prophet, the phrase began to bore him in his later years. This is largely due to the fact that it is the only quotation of his which is widely known or, apparently, of interest to the interviewers and the general public. This is rather saddening for a man who created art which spoke volumes to be rendered relatively unremarkable as a mere man.


4. ‘Fly in the ointment’

‘A fly in the ointment’ is usually an expression which is used to describe something which has been ruined by a seemingly small and insignificant flaw. For example, a fly can be in the ointment at a wedding because the cake was the wrong flavour.

Ointments are rarely in use these days unless needed for topical treatment of a skin condition. Basically, their purpose is purely medicinal. However, hundreds of years ago creams, ointments and oils used to be used for pomp and ceremony, or for the beautification of females. The purpose of ointment was for anointing an individual in circumstances ranging from christenings to the crowning of a monarch.

Although there are earlier texts than the Bible which refer to anointing, the Biblical references to anointment are far greater in number, and Ecclesiastes 10:1 from the King James Bible is of more relevance here. This is because it contains reference to flies destroying ointment and reputation due to their association with pestilence and wrath. The text reads: “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking saviour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.”

Although the Bible references flies and ointment together in the same passage, the phrase as a whole wasn’t coined until 1707 in John Norris’ A Practical Treatise Concerning Humility where he wrote “’tis that dead fly in that ointment of the Apothecary”.

5. ‘A frog in the throat’

Contrary to popular belief, this phrase has absolutely NOTHING to do with medieval people and their doctors believing that the secretions from a frog’s skin would cure any kind of throat ailment. This was a myth which was circulated in order to allow a throat lozenge company to sell their healing throat sweets to the general public.

The first reference to the phrase can be found in a book for boys from 1847 entitled How to be a Man in which young boys are told “if you find a frog in your throat, which obstructs…go by yourself and practise saying no, no, NO!” I am not entirely sure what this refers to, however I would assume that it may possibly refer to prevention of an urge to cry. In the 19th Century, it was considered most unmanly to show ‘womanly affection’ in public and so it is likely that boys would be educated against allowing this to happen.

The Taylor Bros. were popular American manufacturers of throat lozenges, and picked up on the expression, which must have been widely used by the general populace, in order to brand their medicinal lozenges ‘Frog in Your Throat’. This earned them a mention in The Stevens Point Journal in November 1894 and also made its way into The Hastings and St Leonards Observer across the pond in England. In keeping with the name of the lozenges, many of the merchants and sellers of the goods took to dressing up frogs in their store windows and on cart fronts in order to draw in customers. One such merchant is purportedly supposed to have dressed the frogs up as medieval men and women, and it is possible that his allusion, plus a story invented by the advertising agency stating that the lozenges were a medieval remedy, could have encouraged belief that the phrase was medieval.

Phrases we Use and Their Origins #5 – The E’s

For the E’s, there are sadly no interesting phrases which have origins that don’t lie in the Bible. As a result, I have only been able to find three which are worth writing about.

1. ‘Egg on

This is an expression which I have heard constantly throughout my life, and I have put this down to having an Irish influence in my upbringing. I doubt that many people will be in the dark about the meaning of this word, but for the sake of those that don’t, to “egg on” someone is to encourage them to do something Most of the time, I’d hear this in a negative context when I was a toddler; my mother would quite often say “don’t egg your sister on” when she’s caught me trying to persuade my younger sister to eat a worm which, most of the time, she went through with.

Weirdly, and contrary to popular opinion, this phrase has nothing to do with an egg as we would recognise whatsoever despite the popular opinion that eggs were thrown at lazy individuals as punishment for not doing things they were supposed to. However, it has everything to do with the word ‘edge’, as the Old Norse word for ‘edge’ was ‘egg’ and it is likely that this word found its way into our language as a result of the various Viking conquests of Britain.

In Britain, the word first appears in a literary context in the 13th Century print of Homer at Trinity College, taking on the form of ‘eggecide’. However, ‘egg on’ doesn’t appear until the 16th Century in Thomas Drant’s Horace his arte of Poetrie, Pistles and Satyrs Englished from 1566. His translation of Horace states “I’ll egge them on to speake some thyng, whiche spoken may repent them.”

So, it would transpire that to ‘egg on’ has absolutely nothing to do with chickens or people throwing eggs at others, but it has everything to do with manipulating people into doing what you want them to do.

2. ‘Elbow Grease’

‘Elbow grease’ is a phrase which is associated with intensive labour – usually the kind carried out by maids and housewives in the days in which women were expected to stay at home to clean. There was a common phrase uttered by these women whilst swapping tips, and this was that there was no substitute for rubbing hard when it came to making their furniture shine. However, although this phrase was common in the early to mid 1900s, the phrase is actually much, much older.

The first reference to the phrase that I can find is in Rehearsal Transpos’d, a poem written by celebrated metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell written in 1672. He wrote that: “Two or three brawny Fellows in a Corner, with meer Ink and Elbow-grease, do more Harm than an Hundred systematical Divines with their sweaty Preaching.” Of course, being a poet Marvell was making reference to writing when he used ‘Elbow-grease’ , particularly suggesting that, in a period where printed material was being monitored, it could and should be circulated unhindered by opponents to any speaker without consequence.

It was later used in the New Dictionary of the Canting Crew (1699), in a way which is much more synonymous to the way in which it is used now, particularly associating it to lower classes. In this dictionary, it is simply known as ‘sweat’.

So, although the term may originally have been recognised alongside the distribution of writings which one would have laboured over, by its association with the poor the term ‘elbow-grease’ has become well-used to describe hard work or effort.

3. ‘Excuse my French’

This expression is one which was muttered by my parents every time they would accidentally let an S bomb slip in front of myself or my sister when we were younger. Whilst my parents were well aware that my sister and I knew that the S bomb was most definitely an English swear word, they would still attempt to pass it off as French. Apparently, this is something that the British have been renowned for being very good at! We haven’t been very good at attempting to disguise our English swear words as legitimate French for long though, as there doesn’t appear to be any reference to the phrase before 1940 in S.P.E Tract IV citing “Excuse my French!”

We have, however, been very fond of replacing English expletives with French ones, and this it is by doing this that the conditions were set for creating  this phrase. The British elite would often drop French into conversation and have to apologise for it, as many of the poor individuals they were talking to would have had absolutely no notion of the language at all. Often, these French mots would be used in order to replace any comments which could be deemed offensive, as an 1830 edition of The Lady’s Magazine demonstrates. Here, the writer has clearly found a way to call a reader obese in addition to calling her fat: “Bless me, how fat you are grown! – absolutely round as a ball: – you will soon be as enbon point (excuse my French) as your poor dear father…”

So, it would appear that the origins of the phrase ‘excuse my French’ lie in the British need to insult people, but still maintain an air of cordiality whilst doing so. Eventually, we abandoned the French words altogether, and decided to insult each other in our own language.


Phrases we Use and Their Origins #4 – The D’s

This has taken me a loooooong time to write. Namely, because I have had literally no spare time within which to do it. However, I’ve finally got around to it.

1. Daft as a Brush

This is a phrase which has its origins lie where one would least expect. Many would assume that the type of brush being referred to here would be a hair brush, or at the very least a brush with which to do sweeping. However, it actually concerns a fox’s brush – that is, its tail, chimney sweeps, and Northerners.

Let’s start with the first definition of ‘brush’. Fox tails and stoles were increasingly popular with ladies who could afford to purchase them in the Victorian era and early 20th century. Largely because they are very soft to the touch, despite the fact that these animals were considered vermin and lived in wild conditions which would lead to the pelts of most animals becoming matted. Also,whereas many animal furs would be coarse and uncomfortable to the wearer (although necessary for the purpose of making fashionable and social statements), fox tails did not itch or irritate the skin when worn.

The second definition concerns the young boys who would be employed as chimney sweeps, and encouraged to scurry up and down chimneys all day in order to earn a few pence with which to help support their families. It goes without saying that this job was a dangerous one; the inhalation of the coal dust alone would have been enough to send one into coughing fits. However, one of the greatest dangers was presented by the threat of being dropped. On many occasions, those who would be charged with ensuring the boys did not fall down the structures would be overcome by weight and let go of the ropes which were attached to the waists of the boys. Due to the positions that they were often lowered in this would mean that when they eventually landed, they would more than likely land on their heads. In a number of cases, this would cause severe brain damage which would lead to the common societal misconception that these chimney sweeps were stupid. Or, by the Northern definition, ‘soft’.

Therefore, it could be reasonably ascertained that this phrase originated in the Victorian era, although it does not appear to have been used in print until 1956 in William Morgan Williams’s The Sociology of an English Villiage: Gosforth in which he wrote “The wives of two members of a kin-group locally thought to be eccentric and extremely unsociable were pointed out by several people as ‘gay queer’ and ‘daft as a brush’.” By this time, however, the use of young boys in chimney sweeping practices had all but died out, and the wearing of furs beginning to be considered morally reprehensible.

2. Dark Horse

This is a racing parlance, and one which was – and still is – used to describe an unexpected horse winning a race. These horses would not be previously known to those who wished to place bets, and as such they would often be ruled out as potential winning candidates. It is also possible (but wildly speculative and there is not much credibility in this theory) that, due to lighter coloured horses being considered superior (grays and bays), punters would not ‘waste’ bets on the darker coloured horses which would be raced as these were identified with working horses. As such, if one of these horses won, there would be much surprise on the faces of the spectators.

This phrase would seem to first appear in Benjamin Disraeli’s The Young Duke, which was first published in 1931. I’ve always been a fan of Disraeli’s writings, and believe that this description of a race from the novel is just superb: “A dark horse, which had never been thought of … rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph.”

3. Dock your pay

This is a phrase which I don’t think anyone would be particularly pleased to hear. Nobody wants to think that their performance has been sub-par, or that someone would try to swindle them out of their earnings. Unfortunately, this used to be common-place until laws were brought into play to protect the rights of employees.

Most people would associate the word ‘dock’ with shipyards or marinas, as it is a term which is most commonly used in association with all things nautical. However, in this case, it has a much more unusual association; animals. The Old English term ‘dock’ means “to cut short, particularly of the hair or tail of an animal”. In Britain, this was a practice which usually extended to shortening the tails of dogs – particularly breeds such as Dobermans and Boxers. Nowadays, it is very uncommon and very few people are willing to practice it due to restrictions and animal rights.

I bring you back to one of my favourite books again for this one, which I’ve mentioned previously: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. This time, the phrase relevant to the trimming of the fur and appendages of animals can be found in The Reeve’s Tale. Chaucer wrote that “His heer was by his erys ful round yshorn; His top was dokked lyk a preest biforn”. It isn’t until 1783-7 though that the phrase appears in print to have been attributed to the practice of docking wages. Interestingly, this appears in the writings of James Madison, and individual who is recognised as one of the Founding Fathers. In The Writings of James Madison he writes “They…will not only be docked of their half-pay, but will run great hazard of being put off with regard to a great share of their other pay.” (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

4. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

This is an expression I absolutely love, but one which actually has some quite horrific history attached. It is well known that our ancestors weren’t the cleanest of people, as many references are made even in Victorian times to ‘yearly baths’. In these instances, a family would have one bath tub, the same water of which every individual in a family would be expected to bathe in.

As the head of the household, the father would bath first, followed by any grown or working sons. The next turn would be that of his wife, and then any younger sons and daughters would follow her according to their age. Naturally, the last to bathe would be the baby. By this point, due to the amount of dirt which would already have washed off the bath’s previous occupants, the water would be horrifically filthy. So filthy, in fact, that any objects which were dropped or lost in the bath would not be found by merely looking at the water. They would usually only be found when the tub was emptied. There are some who dismiss this theory as complete nonsense, however it is a proverb which has been in existence in Germany since the 1500’s and indeed appears in Thomas Wurners Narrenbeschworung in 1512, as “Schuttet das Kind mit dem Bade aus”. It was also a phrase which found itself being used in joke form among the mining families of Wales and the Northern England.

The alternative theory, is that of being an analogy to slavery which derives from Thomas Carlyle’s Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question which was published in 1843. In it, he writes “And if true, it is important for us, in reference to this Negro Question and some others. The Germans say, “you must empty-out the bathing-tub, but not the baby along with it.” Fling-out your dirty water with all zeal, and set it careering down the kennels; but try if you can to keep the little child!” Many have wrongfully thought that here Carlyle has been advocating the abolishment of slavery, but instead merely means that he approved of the hiring of servants for life as long as they were paid.

Both arguments to have some credibility, however it is up to the individual to decide whether this expression relates merely to dirty bathing water or the more awful topic of slavery.


Phrases we Use and Their Origins #2 – The B’s

As with my post from the 13th September 2014, this post concerns itself with the phrases that we commonly use in our every day lives and their origins. The only exception is that I have moved on to the letter ‘B’.

1. Back to the Drawing Board

Unlike many of the phrases that I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the expression ‘back to the drawing board’ wasn’t coined until World War 2′, in a way to try and distract from the disappointment of many design failures during the period. After all, since these failures could have such grave consequences, the only way to keep from succumbing to stress and responsibility of a large number of lives lost was to keep humour going, as is the British fashion. Peter Arno, a much celebrated comic artist from the period, used the phrase in an image he created for the New Yorker in 1941, which shows military personnel and hangar crew hurriedly making their way towards a crashed plane. Meanwhile, the plane’s architect is walking away from the wreck with the plans rolled up under his arm, saying “Well, back to the old drawing board!”

It was also the Americans who first began widely using the phrase in popular publications such as the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin from December 1947. The paper stated that “Grid injuries for the season now closing suggest anew that nature get back to the drawing board, as the human knee is not only nothing to look at but also a piece of bum engineering.” Apparently, the most popular injury for sports stars of the period were knee injuries.

Despite appearance in numerous publications in the English speaking Western World, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the phrase was wholeheartedly accepted as an expression to be used in every day life. By 1966, it had become so popular that it was used to name an episode of a TV series called ‘Get Smart’, and also used to title many books which were being published. Nowadays, we still use the phrase often. I know that I often used it with exasperation when essays at University weren’t turning out the way I wanted them to. In fact, I must have gone back to the drawing several times whilst writing them!


Peter Arno for the New Yorker

2. Ball and Chain

This expression is fantastic, and I won’t deny that I absolutely love it. Nowadays, it’s used affectionately (and sometimes not so affectionately) to refer to one’s spouse. Initially, it was used with reference to simply the wife, however as society has developed into a promoter of equal opportunities, it has now fondly been adopted to also refer to husbands and male partners. Men have quite often joked that women can be very restricting, often preventing their partners from engaging in activities as freely as they did before they found themselves in a relationship. They also joke that being married is similar to serving a life sentence in prison. It is hardly surprising, then, that they would be referred to as an instrument of punishment.

The phrase directly refers to the ball and chain which were worn by prisoners in both Britain and America in the late 18th and 19th centuries. They were heavy, movement restricting objects which prevented individuals contained in them from escaping. Often, they caused injury and were extremely cumbersome. The earliest citation in print which documents their use comes from the still popular British Newspaper The Times, which claimed in 1819 that the judges would “sentence the prisoner to receive 50 stripes on his bare back, and be confined with a ball and chain to hard labour for 12 calendar months”.


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3. Bee in your bonnet

Bee keepers have not always worn protective clothing which has been effective when dealing with their unusual choice of pets. Quite often, they’d find that a number would manage to infiltrate their clothing, particularly in the flap which would appear between the neck and the head. As a result, the keeper would become preoccupied with getting the insects out of his clothing as opposed to harvesting honey. Thus, the expression ‘to have a bee in one’s head’ was born. The first reference of this version of the expression being used in print form is recorded in Alexander Douglas’s Aeneis from 1513, where it is written that “Quhat Bren be thou in bed with heid full of beis”.

Eventually, the phrase became modernised as the fashions changed and men found themselves adopting the bonnet (a type of cap) as opposed to a formal hat as they went about their daily lives. The trend didn’t last too long in England, and they were obsolete by the time the modulated phrase was in use, but they were still incredibly popular in Scotland. Philip Doddrige refers to the expression being of Scottish origin in his Letters from 1790, writing “I suppose you have heard of Mr. Coward’s pranks. He has, as the Scotch call it, a Bee in his Bonnet.” I would assume the this Mr. Coward that is mentioned had a reputation as a prankster.


4. Blood, sweat and tears

This is a phrase which has been adapted from the title of a rather famous speech made by Winston Churchill in 1940, in which he warned the Brutish people of the significant hardships and losses they could expect to encounter throughout the course of the Second World War. His “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech was incredibly popular with the citizens of Britain, and brought the phrase into popular use. However, despite this, he was not the individual to coin the phrase despite claims to the contrary.

Its origins actually lie in the Bible, in Luke 22:44 from the first edition of The King James Bible. The verse reads “and being in agony, he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground”. A Welsh minister, known as Christmas Evans was extremely familiar with this verse, and in his Sermons on Various Subjects , translated from Welsh to English by J. Davis in 1837. He wrote that “Christ the High a Priest of our profession, when he laid down his life for us on Calvary, was bathed in his own blood, sweat and tears.” Although we can’t be sure that it was the translator or the minister who coined the phrase, it is definitely certain that Churchill was not the creator. Not unless he was in possession of a time machine.


Tyler Bramer

5. Bury the hatchet

This is an expression which, as many most likely do, associate with the Hollywood interpretation of the way in which the Red Indians used to speak to each other. Phrases such as ‘kemp sabe’ we’re never used by tribes people, and thus the Hollywood association of expressions such as these with the Indian people is one which I actually find to be quite an insulting slur on their heritage. I was surprised, then, to learn that ‘bury the hatchet’ is one which is Indian in origin.

When warring tribes were lucky enough to find themselves making peace with their enemies, it was common practice that the leaders of both tribes would bury their hatchets in the same hole to symbolically symbolise that their people would never find themselves in conflict against each other again. As history dictates, though, we know that these periods of peace did not always last. There are many references to this practice in literature, the New England Historical & Genealogical Register for the year 1870 chronicles Samuel Sewall’s account which describes such a practice : “Meeting with ye Sachem they came to an agreemt and buried two axes in ye Ground; which ceremony to them is more significant & binding than all Articles of Peace the Hatchet being a principal weapon with ym.” Although the excerpt is difficult to read, the process is pretty clear.

The expression in its current form didn’t come into being in print until 1747, where the American author Cadwallader Golden ESQ (isn’t that name amazing?!) used it in his historical text The History of the Five Indian Nations of Canada. In fact, it could well be the case that he is the individual with which it originated. It reads “The great Matter under Consideration with the Brethren is, how to strengthen themselves, and weaken their Enemy. My Opinion is, that the Brethren should send Messengers to the Utawawas, Twibtwies, and the farther Indians, and to send back likewise some of the Prisoners of these Nations, if you have any left to bury the Hatchet, and to make a Covenant-chain, that they may put away all the French that are among them.”


Remem08 at

So, here are the B’s for the day.

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Phrases we Use and Their Origins #1 – The A’s

Scrolling through my news feed on Facebook on a Sunday back in August, I came across a really interesting post via one of my friends (sorry, I can’t remember who) which concerned a selection of phrases and idioms we use and where they came from. As an English graduate with a huge love of everything that makes up the way we speak and write, I was excited. Although it had only covered 11 phrases which we use today, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and was thus inspired to start doing research of my own. I found myself being drawn in to far too many interesting examples to write about in just one post, and so for this month I’m hopefully going to get round to writing about a select few each day. So that I don’t end up repeating myself, it’s going to be a lot easier for me to do this alphabetically than randomly. So, without further adieu, here is my selection for today:

1. “A Fate Worse than Death”
This is an expression which my parents have used many times throughout my childhood as a threat to prevent me from causing mischief. In fact, I think the parents of most of my friends probably used that threat as well! However (and this is probably where a majority of parents will feel quite ill at the though of ever aiming this phrase at their children), traditionally this was used as a euphemism to describe situations which would make life unliveable, most commonly made in reference to loss of virginity or rape. The Georgian and Victorian public reacted strongly to a woman who’d had a fall from sexual grace, and attested to the general public belief that a woman who had found herself in a state of dishonour would be better off dead. Quite often they would suffer quite dearly, being outcast from society and finding themselves being under serious threat of suffering serious abuse at the hands of the authorities as well as their peers.

Jane Porter’s novel The Scottish Chiefs: A Romance (vol. 3), which was first published in 1810, is the earliest written reference to this phrase being used in the chapter where Helen is scouring the guests at a banquet of the man she had fallen in love with. She is looking for “he who had delivered her from a fate worse than death”. It would appear that Jane Porter is a popular name when used to reference the phrase, as Edgar Rice wrote that “[the ape] threw her roughly across his broad, hairy shoulders, and leaped back into the trees, bearing Jane Porter away toward a fate a thousand times worse than death.” This line appeared in his 1914 published novel Tarzan of the Apes, which has now been thoroughly ruined for me now that I have been made aware of the history of the phrase.


2. Above Board

This is a term which I had always assumed had nautical origins, referring to the relationships between deck-hands and officers. However, I was entirely wrong. In fact, it is associated with gambling. Specifically, card games. When playing a game such as poker, if a punter kept his arms and hands above the table top (known as the board) it was widely accepted that he would not be engaging in any kind of trickery or foul play.

Although this term was apparently coined in 1594, I have not been able to find any concrete evidence of this. The earliest reference that I have been able to find in literature dates back to 1664, where H. More wrote “They would have dealt above-board, and like honest men” in A Modest Enquiry into the Mystery of Iniquity .


3. A Turn-up for the Books

The phrase ‘turn-up’ is one which has been in use since at least 1820 and was used to reference cards or numbers on dice which were ‘turned up’ by chance. As a result, it would become associated with an unexpected stroke of luck or a surprise. It was officially defined in 1859, in John Camden’s A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Can’t and Vulgar Words as “an unexpected slice of luck”. This is all very well and good, but how did a phrase which found its origins in cards become associated with books?

It is unclear quite how this happened, but the phrase ‘turn-up’ found itself becoming associated with horse racing. Since the 18th century, bets placed on horses at race meets required the punter’s name, stake, the name of the horse and the odds to be recorded in a notebook in order to try and eliminate foul play. This process was commonly referred to as ‘making a book’. Often, a bookmaker would find that the name of the horse who had the race would not appear among the list of horses wagered against, and so would be considered to have had a ‘turn-up’ by not having to pay out. The earliest use of this phrase being used in print form appears in the Leeds Intelligencer from August 1863, where it was a “rare turn-up for the book-makers, the majority of whom had never written Blackdown’s name in their books.”


Nottingham University

4. As Brown as a Berry

‘As brown as a berry’ is an expression which we often use to describe someone who has just come back from holiday, and is sporting a rather lovely, dark tan. It was often used to describe the colours of horses which, apparently, we’re considered to be of superior quality if they shared their colouring with that of a rotting berry. Due to the fact that very little was written down during the Middle Ages, it is unknown exactly when the phrase first came into being.

The first reference of this ever being used in print form, however, is from one of my favourite books, The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. It’s unclear when exactly this was written, as Chaucer dropped off the face of the earth and the original manuscript went missing. However, it is widely accepted that it was written between 1386 and 1400. The passage of ‘The Monk’s Tale’ that this comes from is absolutely fantastic:

“He was a lord full fat and in good point;
His eyen stepe and rolling in his head
That stemed as a fornice of a led;
His botes souple, his hors in gret estat,
Now certainly he was a sayre prelat.
He was not pale as a forpined gost;
A fat swan loved he best of any rost;
His palfrey was as broune as is a bery.”


5. At Loggerheads

William Shakespeare is one of the greatest contributors to the English a dictionary, each and every one of his plays containing line upon line consisting of previously unrecognisable words. One of these words, ‘loggerhead’, was used to describe an individual which is dim-witted and stupid, debuting it in his 1588 play Love’s Labours Lost. Berowne, in the play, is exasperated with Costard, and exclaims “Ah you whoreson logger-head, you were borne to doe me shame.”

It is believed that this expression, used to describe people stubbornly locked in a ridiculous argument, was inspired by the logger. This was a thick piece of wood which was attached to the legs of a horse in order to prevent it escaping. The first print use of this expression being used to describe an argument, however, doesn’t originate in any of Shakespeare’s plays (although he set the premise), but instead in 1680, in Francis Kirkman’s The English Rogue. He wrote that they “frequently quarrell’d about their Sicilian wenches, and indeed… they seem… to be worth the going to Logger-heads for.”


Image by Barbara Jones

So there you have it. Five commonly used expressions from the English language which, to me, have very unexpected origins.

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