Phrases we Use and Their Origins #3 – The C’s

Apologies for this post taking so long to get written and published. I’ve had a rather tough week, with my younger sister being hospitalised, and starting my postgrad. As such I will be having to write this particular article once a week instead of every day (let’s be honest, it was a little ambitious!).

Anyway, A large number of the phrases that we use begin with the letter ‘C’. Literally hundreds of them. So many, in fact, that it has been incredibly difficult to whittle them down to a list of just five.

1. Caught red-handed

My parents use this phrase a lot, usually when they catch my sister and I dipping into the biscuit tin when we’re supposed to be on diets. Due to the fact that we’re almost constantly on diets, you can imagine that this is uttered quite a lot in our household.

Despite being used by my family to out biscuit stealers, the origin of the expression has nothing to do with them. Instead, it’s a straightforward reference to an individual carrying out a murder or being involved in poaching and being caught out so soon after the act that they hadn’t had time to wash the blood off their hands. Due to the simplicity of the legal system at the time of origin, it was not possible to prosecute someone for murder unless they were caught in the act or with damning evidence on their person.

It’s derived from the phrase ‘red hand’ which was coined in Scotland and dates back to 1432, where it was used in the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I. As a result of this, the expression was extremely popular in Scottish legal proceedings and appears heavily in the print transcripts/minutes from the 15th century onwards. Sir George Mackenzie’s A Discourse Upon the Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal he demonstrates that it was still in use in 1674, writing that “if he be not taken red-hand the sheriff cannot proceed against him.” This also alludes to the fact that the legal system was still extremely basic.

It wasn’t until 1819, when Sir Walter Scott published Ivanhoe, however, that we see the modern version of this saying appear in print, when Front-de-Boeuf brings it up in conversation. He states that he “did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.” It is disputed, but widely accepted, however, that this is one of a numerous number of phrases coined by Walter Scott, although due to the fact he would have most likely been aware of the expression ‘red-hand’ before penning his novel. Regardless, due to the wide readership of his texts and their popular reception, it is likely that the expression could have found itself obsolete had he not included it in his writing.


2. Clod-Hopper

I’m not sure how often this phrase is used in households outside my own, but this is a word that my father uses to describe me on an almost daily basis. This is due to the fact that whilst I like to consider myself quite refined, I am awfully clumsy – especially when I find myself incredibly busy. As you can imagine, this is not helpful when it comes to completing tasks!

It is not known for sure where this word derives from, however logic dictates that it would be apt to attribute it to a grasshopper or a cricket. A clod is a lump of earth, exactly like the ones you find along country paths or in areas of London like Richmond Park, and these insects can quite often be found near these mounds.

Due to the word being linked to dirt and insects, it became synonymous with the countryside and those living there. Over time, it became a derogatory term to describe country folk who had stereotypically been termed unrefined and oafish by the time the of 1690 publication of A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew. A clod-hopper is cited as being “a Ploughman.”


3. Come up trumps

‘Come up trumps’ is a modernised version of the 17th century phrase ‘to turn up trumps’. The word ‘trump’ is a variation of ‘triumph’, which was the name of a popular card game from the 1600s which is not dissimilar to Whist. In God-fearing times, playing card games was considered to be a sin (to be honest, this isn’t a shock as pretty much everything except going to church constituted a sin), however that didn’t prevent the preacher Hugh Latimer from one of his sermons from 1529. He preached that “the game that wee wyll playe at, shall bee called the triumphe… Lette therefore euery Christian manne and woman playe at these cardes.” For encouraging sinful activities, however, Latimer was punished, being burned at the stake.

In triumph, the trump suit is selected randomly by one the dealer ‘cutting’ the deck of cards. For the round, the trump cards would outrank other cards, regardless of their value, until a new suit was chosen. As a result, the expression quickly found itself becoming synonymous with success and soon was used in scenarios which had nothing to do with cards.

The 18th century saw the literal turn of the phrase being phased out, and the figurative becoming increasingly popular. It was eventually recorded in its figurative sense in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785, being defined as “Something may turn up trumps, something lucky may happen”. As time as worn on, the ‘turn’ part of the phrase has been faded out of use through the introduction of more modern language, the word ‘come’ being used in its favour.


4. Cost an arm and a leg.

This is one of those phrases which really does prove that teachers are not always right and,quite often, make stuff up to either entertain or shock their classes. Or, because they don’t really have much of a clue about the subject which they are teaching. I remember studying the Tudors at my English school, particularly how portraits would be altered to reflect what the monarch wished people to think about themselves and past kings (poor Richard III). Half way through the discussion, my teacher threw out this gem: “the reason you don’t see full length images of the poor is because they would cost an arm and a leg. Artists would charge by limb, because they were very difficult to draw, and only royalty could afford it.” This is something which I have believed for a long time as a result and, looking back on it, it’s a load of rubbish.The phrase is actually one which is more modern, coming into play after WWII and makes far more sense.

Following WWII, many soldiers who had fought in battle – and indeed many civilians who had found themselves in the middle of the bombings of their cities – were struggling to come to terms with their new lives, particularly those having lost limbs in combat. The newspapers played on the atrocities of the war for a long time, publishing interviews with individuals who had left parts of themselves on French, Japanese and Eastern European soil. It was accepted by the public that these individuals had paid the ultimate price for their freedom, as am arm or a leg isn’t something you would just trivially give away! Eventually, the phrase would find itself being used trivially in print, the symbolic weight of it being almost entirely lost. For example, The Long Beach Independent from December 1949 contains an article which states that “Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say “Merry Christmas” and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.”

Despite the fact that many individuals have accepted this as the origin, I find it incredibly hard to believe that this is the case. This is largely due to the fact that there are many references to giving limbs being thrown about in literature from the 19th century. Indeed, an 1849 edition of Sharpe’s London Journal refers to it, stating that “he could gladly give his right arm to be cut off if it would make him, at once, old enough to go and earn money instead of Lizzy.” And the American publication, the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye from July 1875 records that a “man who owes five years subscription to the Gazette is trying to stop his paper without paying up, and the editor is going to grab that back pay if it takes a leg.” It would appear that these came into being after the Napoleonic wars and the American Civil War respectively, which both have horror stories concerning butchered and unnecessary amputations attached to their names.

I am inclined to believe that the earlier turns of the phrase are where the origins of the saying lie. However, they did go out of use during WWII – most likely due to the sensitivities attached to the fact that soldiers were coming home having literally given their limbs for their country and the realities attached to the phrase. It was only when the public had begun to get more comfortable in post-war Britain and America that the expression was reintroduced, but in a modified way. Therefore, it could be an argument for postwar America coining the phrase as we recognise it.


5. Cut off your nose to spite your face.

This saying is one which I have been on the receiving end of many a time, usually when I was younger as I used to sulk a fair bit. It’s an old proverb which dates back to the reign of the Tudors and, although it doesn’t appear entirely in the form we use it currently, John Heywood’s A Dialogue Conteynyng Prouerbes and Epigrammes from 1562 does have an entry which is directly linked to it. It falls under the category “Of Spite”. Instead of referring to the nose, however, it refers to the eyes and is as follows:
“If there be any, as I hope there be none,
That would lese both his eyes to lese his foe one.
Then fear I there be many, as the world go’th,
That would lese one eye to lese their foes both.”

It wasn’t until the publication of The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by John Grose (1796) that the expression was recorded in a manner which better represents the expression as we are familiar with it today. In the text, he refers to one individual who “cut off his nose to be revenged of his face. Said of one who, to be revenged on his neighbour, has materially injured himself.” As the language has evolved and become ‘less proper’ (as my grandmother has said many a time) the word ‘spite’ was adopted instead of revenge.


Again, I’m so sorry this has taken a long time to get up!