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.”


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So, here are the B’s for the day.

*Please note that all images used are taken from Pinterest unless otherwise specified. If any of these images are yours and you wish for them to be removed/credited to you, please get in touch so that I can give credit where credit is due*