Why We Say Such Strange Things

When we use phrases such as “white elephant” or “read the riot act,” most likely we are unaware of the origins of the phrases, though we understand their accepted meaning. A bit of background can shed light on our usage.

Turn a Blind Eye. The phrase is used to refer to a willful refusal to acknowledge a particular reality. It dates back to a legendary chapter in the career of the British naval hero Horatio Nelson. During 1801’s Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson’s ships were pitted against a large Danish-Norwegian fleet. When his more conservative superior officer flagged for him to withdraw, the one-eyed Nelson supposedly brought his telescope to his bad eye and blithely proclaimed, “I really do not see the signal.” He went on to score a decisive victory. Some historians have since dismissed Nelson’s famous quip as merely a battlefield myth, but the phrase “turn a blind eye” persists to this day.

whiteelephantWhite Elephant. White elephants were once considered highly sacred creatures in Thailand – the animal even graced the national flag until 1917 – but they were also wielded as a subtle form of punishment. According to legend, if an underling or rival angered a Siamese king, the royal might present the unfortunate man with the gift of a white elephant. While ostensibly a reward, the creatures were tremendously expensive to feed and house, and caring for one often drove the recipient into financial ruin. Whether any specific rulers actually bestowed such a passive-aggressive gift is uncertain, but the term has since come to refer to any burdensome possession – pachyderm or otherwise.

Crocodile Tears. Modern English speakers use this phrase to describe a display of superficial or false sorrow, but the saying actually derives from a medieval belief that crocodiles shed tears of sadness while they killed and consumed their prey. The myth dates back as far as the 14th century and comes from a book called “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.” The book, quite popular upon its release, recounts a brave knight’s adventures during his supposed travels through Asia. Among its many fabrications, the book includes a description of crocodiles that notes, “These serpents sley men, and eate them weeping, and they have no tongue.” While factually inaccurate, Mandeville’s account of weeping reptiles later found its way into the works of Shakespeare, and “crocodile tears” became an idiom as early as the 16th century.

Diehard. While it typically refers to someone with a strong dedication to a particular set of beliefs, the term originally had a series of much more literal meanings. In its earliest incarnation in the 1700s, the expression described condemned men who struggled the longest when they were executed by hanging. The phrase later became even more popular after 1811’s Battle of Albuera during the Napoleonic Wars. In the midst of the fight, a wounded British officer named William Inglis supposedly urged his unit forward by bellowing “Stand your ground and die hard … make the enemy pay dear for each of us!” Inglis’ 57th Regiment suffered 75 percent casualties during the battle, and went on to earn the nickname “the Die Hards.”

Resting On Laurels. The idea of resting on your laurels dates back to leaders and athletic stars of ancient Greece. In Hellenic times, laurel leaves were closely tied to Apollo, the god of music, prophecy and poetry. Apollo was usually depicted with a crown of laurel leaves, and the plant eventually became a symbol of status and achievement. Victorious athletes at the ancient Pythian Games received wreaths made of laurel branches, and the Romans later adopted the practice and presented wreaths to generals who won important battles. Venerable Greeks and Romans, or “laureates,” were thus able to “rest on their laurels” by basking in the glory of past achievements. Only later did the phrase take on a negative connotation, and since the 1800s it has been used for those who are overly satisfied with past triumphs.

Read the Riot Act. Angry parents might “read the riot act” to their unruly children. But in 18th century England, the Riot Act was a real document, and it was often recited aloud to angry mobs. Instituted in 1715, the Riot Act gave the British government the authority to label any group of more than 12 people a threat to the peace. In these circumstances, a public official would read a small portion of the Riot Act and order the people to “disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to their habitations.” Anyone that remained after one hour was subject to arrest or removal by force. The law was put to the test in 1819 during the infamous Peterloo Massacre, in which a cavalry unit attacked a large group of protestors after they appeared to ignore a reading of the Riot Act.

By and Large. Many everyday phrases are nautical in origin – “taken aback,” “loose cannon” and “high and dry” all originated at sea – but perhaps the most surprising example is the common saying “by and large.” As far back as the 16th century, the word “large” was used to mean that a ship was sailing with the wind at its back. Meanwhile, the much less desirable “by,” or “full and by,” meant the vessel was traveling into the wind. Thus, for mariners, “by and large” referred to trawling the seas in any and all directions relative to the wind. Today, sailors and landlubbers alike now use the phrase as a synonym for “all things considered” or “for the most part.”

The Third Degree. There are several tales about the origin of “the third degree,” a saying commonly used for long or arduous interrogations. One theory contends the phrase relates to the various degrees of murder in the criminal code; yet another credits it to Thomas F. Byrnes, a 19th century New York City policeman who used the pun “Third Degree Byrnes” when describing his hardnosed questioning style. In truth, the saying is most likely derived from the Freemasons, a centuries-old fraternal organization whose members undergo rigorous questioning and examinations before becoming “third degree” members, or “master masons.”

These Are Among Our Favorite Maxims

Out of habit or custom, we tend to pepper our conversations with a wide variety of adages or maxims, making simple points with widely-known expressions. Sometimes the expressions bear no apparent relationship to the point we are making, but we know the meaning and the use of the adage makes the point.

Here are some of those we most commonly use:

A stitch in time saves nine – Repair something before the damage gets worse.

A pig in a poke – Literally buying a pig in a bag without looking in the bag. Meaning is buying an unknown.

All hands make light work – People working together can better solve a problem or perform a task.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – You need a life beyond your work.

All is fair in love and warAll’s fair in love and war – No rules apply. The saying usually is used in a light hearted way to describe some action that is a little unusual for the circumstances in which it took place.

All’s well that ends well – Things may not have gone as planned, but the end result worked out.

Big fish, little sea – If you are a clerk in a multi-national company with thousands of employees you are a little fish in a big sea. If you are the accountant for a small local company you are then a big fish in a little sea.

By hook or by crook – A hook was a bent rod with a sharp point used to assist the user to hold and move a bag or bundle. A crook was the long (two metre) walking stick with a hook on the end traditionally used by shepherds. By hook or by crook meant that by the use of these two tools the job would be completed.

Don’t change horses in midstream – Stick with what or who you know.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – Spread your risks. Don’t invest all of your money with one bank.

Don’t beat a dead horse – A project obviously will not succeed, so it is connsidered dead and not worth further work.

Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread – When considering an action be sure to consider all angles before making the final decision.

Good things come to those who wait – Don’t rush into anything, think it through and wait until the time is right before you act.

Great minds think alike – Thoughtful people tend to come up with similar answers.

He who hesitates is lost – If you are sure of something, go for it.

Lay low – Say little and hope others will forget the error of your ways.

Never look a gift horse in the mouth – Don’t accept,without question, something given to you.

Out of sight, out of mind – If someone leaves our immediate vicinity to live elsewhere they maybe forgotten.

Penney wise pound foolish – Refers to a person who worries about saving every small amount of money that they can, but may go and spend many pounds without thinking about the real cost.

Practice makes perfect – Applies in all training and learning.

Shake the hand before you plough the field – Arrange the payment conditions before doing the work.

There’s no use in flogging (beating)a dead horse.

Too many cooks spoil the broth – Stay out of the expert’s way.

Two heads are better than one – Two people can more easily find a solution to a problem than one person.

Variety is the spice of life – Life would be dull without a wide range of activities.

Adages, Meanings & Origins

Our language is filled with strange expressions that we often use and hear. Our understanding of these maxims usually is clear, but if you just look at the expressions some seem pretty strange.

Take the phrase “Bite the Bullet,” for example. Do we really know anyone who chews on bullets? Not likely, but we certainly know that it simply means to accept something difficult or unpleasant. In times past there was no quick access to anesthesia before emergency surgery during battle, or no time to administer it. The surgeon told patients to bite down on a bullet in an effort to distract them from the pain.

Paint the Town Red. One theory suggests this phrase was born out of the brothels of the American West, and referred to men behaving as though their whole town were a red-light district. A more common explanation is that the phrase owes its origin to one legendary night of drunkenness. In 1837, the Marquis of Waterford – a known lush and mischief maker – led a group of friends on a night of drinking through the English town of Melton Mowbray. The bender culminated in vandalism after Waterford and his fellow revelers knocked over flowerpots, pulled knockers off of doors and broke the windows of some of the town’s buildings. To top it off, the mob literally painted a tollgate, the doors of several homes and a swan statue with red paint. The marquis and his pranksters later compensated Melton for the damages, but their drunken escapade likely is why “paint the town red” became shorthand for a wild night out.

Give Him the Cold Shoulder. Rudely tell someone he isn’t welcome. In medieval England, giving someone the cold shoulder was a polite way to let guest know it was time to leave by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton or pork.

Go Cold Turkey. People once believed that during withdrawal the skin of drug addicts became translucent, hart to touch and covered with goose bumps – like the skin of a plucked turkey.

Blood Is Thicker Than Water. Today we accept this as meaning that family comes before everything else. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, blood rituals between men symbolized bonds that were greater than those of family. The saying also relates to “blood brothers” – warriors wjho symbolically shared the blood shed together in battle and who were said to have stronger bonds than biological brothers.

Break the Ice. Today this has nothing to do with ice. It simply means to initiate a friendship or start a project. But before the days or trains or cars, port cities that thrived on trade suffered in winter because frozen waters prevented ships from entering the city. Small ships known as “icebreakers” would rescue icebound ships by breaking the ice and providing a path for them.

Butter Someone Up. When we say this, we mean that we flatter someone to ingratiate ourselves with them. The phrase stems from an ancient Indian custom of throwing balls of butter at statues of the gods to seek their favor.

Cat Got Your Tongue? When someone is at a loss for words, we may utter this expression. This phrase has two possible origins. One might refer to the cat-o’-nine-tails whip used by the English Navy for flogging. The whip caused so much pain victims were left speechless. Or the phrase may have come from the practice of cutting out the tongues of liars and blasphemers and feeding them to cats.

Go the Whole Nine Yards. World War II fighter pilots received a 9-yard chain of ammunition. When a pilot used the whole chain on one target, it was said he gave it “the whole nine yards.”

Caught Red-Handed. An old law said that if soeone butchered an animal that didn’t belong tom, he had to be caught with the animal’s blood on his hands to be convicted. Being caught with freshly cut meat did not make the person guilty.

Wake Up On the Wrong Side of the Bed. Wake up in a bad mood. The left side of the body used to be considered sinister. To ward off evil, innkeepers made sure the left side of the bed was pushed against a wall so guests had to get up on the right side of the bed.

Eat Humble Pie. Today this simply means to make an apology and accept the humiliation that goes along with it. During the Middle Ages, the lord of a manor would hold a feast after hunting. Tjhe lord would receive the finest cut of meat at the feast, while those of lower standing were served a pie filled with the entrails and innards, known as “umbles.” Receiving “umble pie” was considered humiliating because it told the others at the feast of the guest’s lower status.

Kick the Bucket and Bucket List. To kick the bucket is to die and the bucket list outlines what one wants to accomplish before doing so. Used to be that when a cow was killed at a slaughterhouse, a bucket was placed beneath it while the cow was positioned on a pulley. Sometimes the animal would kick during the process and literally kick the buck before being killed.

More Than You Can Shake a Stick At. Farmers controlled their sheep by shaking their staffs to indicate where the animals should go. When farmers had more sheep than they could control, it was said they had “more than you can shake a stick at.”

No Spring Chicken. Chicken farmers in New England generally sold chickens in the spring, so chickens hatched in the spring yielded better earnings than the older birds that survived the winter. Sometimes the farmers tried to sell the old birds for the price of a new spring chicken. Clever buyers complained that the fowl was “no spring chicken,,” so the term came to represent anyone past their prime.

Pleased As Punch. In Punch and Judy, a 17th century puppet show for children, Punch always killed people and always felt pleased with himself afterwards. Hence today’s meaning of the phrase is to be very happy.

Rub the Wrong Way. Today’s meaning is to irritate, bother or annoy someone. It stems from colonial times when servants were required to wet-bub and dry-rub the oak floors each week. Doing the rubbing against the grain caused streaks to form, making the wood look awful and irritating the owner.

Saved By the Bell. Today’s meaning is simply to be rescued from an unwanted situation. But originally it literally meant life over death. Being buried alive once was a common occurrence and those who feard such a fate were buried in special coffins that connected to a bell above ground. Guards listened for bells in case they had to dig up a living person and save them by the bell.

Show Your True Colors. Reveal your tyrue nature. Warships once flew multiple flags to confuse their enemies. The rules of warfare, however, stated that a ship had to hoist its true flag before firing, thus displaying its country’s true colors.

Spill the Beans. Beans were used in ancient Greece to vote for or against candidates entering various organizations. One container was used for each candidate and group members would place a white bean in the container if they approved of the candidate and a black bean if they did not. A clumsy voter sometimes knocked over the container, revealing all of the beans and allowing everyone to see the otherwise confidential votes.