A glance at the words of Geoffrey Chaucer and you’d be well-forgiven for thinking the English spoken a few centuries ago has as much in common with today as Ancient Etruscan. Though, it’s sometimes surprising how often we’ll blurt something out and not even realise that our pantaloon-wearing, lute-playing ancestors were saying the exact same things. See Part I and Part II
Pay through the nose
Today’s meaning: To pay an unreasonably high price for something
A pub-stool guru would boast how this phrase goes right back to ninth-century Ireland, whereupon the conquering Danish armies had issued a rather creative form of oppressive taxation dubbed the ‘nose tax’. The story is, that if a plucky native refused to cough up to Olaf, he’d have his Guinness-soaked nose introduced to the business end of a Danish blade. Unfortunately(well, not for the Irish) there’s bugger-all evidence of that ever happening. Instead, this phrase may have arrived by way of more natural etymological evolution. In the 17th century, the word ‘rhino’ was popular slang for money, much like ‘clam’ or ‘quid’ is today. Similarly at the time, ‘to bleed’ was lose or extort a lot of money, a term still used today. Those acquainted with plastic surgery probably also know that rhino is Greek for nose. And those acquainted with blunt force blows to the face know that noses are inclined to bleed. Put these elements together and to lose a lot of money through regrettable circumstances is to ‘pay through the nose’.
Make no bones about it
Today’s meaning: To make something straightforward and problem-free
For many a goode olde Englishemane, a warm hearty broth in the public house was a welcome respite to the end of a hard day spent shovelling horse shit off the crowded London streets. The simplicity of stews, broths and others meaty soup concoctions made them a ubiquitous meal for common folk of the middle-ages. Though, the lack of culinary finesse sometimes meant the broths were swimming with chunks of bone and cartilage and other inedible animal bits. Not that it’d completely deter a famished Englishman – it just made it quite difficult to eat. So, when there were no bones in the soup, it was a good, easy, satisfying meal. And so, ‘no bones’ came to mean ‘no problems’, as in: ‘Well, you’re lucky that today he had no bones about it… but it might be a different story to-marrow!’ (sorry, I really had to put that pun in, by whatever means necessary. I regret nothing!).
Fits to a T
Today’s meaning: Something that suits a particular style or model perfectly, in fine detail
This phrase comes all the way from the 1600s, which pre-dates the common belief that it refers to the T-square (a geometry drawing tool). It’s most likely that ‘fitting to a ‘t’’ was shorthand for ‘fitting to a tittle’, a line used in a play, which surprisingly had nothing to do with comfortable brassieres, but rather the little dot that hovers above a lower case ‘i’ – known to the few feckless souls who would care about knowing such a thing, as the tittle. Figuratively, it was used to emphasise a meticulous level of detail; thoroughness all the way down to the tiniest dot, a fine point. Eventually the phrase became used more to describe a perfect fit, rather than just a comprehensive analysis.
Put up your dukes
Today’s meaning: raising your fists in preparation for a fight
If someone told you to ‘put up your dukes’, you’d first-of-all realise you’re about to do pugilism; and second-of-all wonder how you teleported through time to a tavern-side alley in 1940s America. The term, though, dates way back to Georgian era cockney rhyming slang. When two geezers were about to throw down, the’d taunt: ‘put up your forks (fingers)’ ,which became ‘put up your Dukes of Yorks’ and later simply ‘dukes’. Fisticuffs has always been a tradition ripe with slang, as seen in Samuel E. Chamberlain’s 1859 memoir My Confession, where he eloquently describes beating the snot out of someone: “I landed a stinger (punch) on his potatoe trap (mouth) with my left duke (fist), drawing the claret (blood) and sending him to grass.(floor)”. Even today, many refer to their fists as ‘dukes’, in preparation to ‘duke it out’, though I may have been a bit literal naming mine ‘Arthur Wessesley’ and ‘Rolf the Ganger Ragnvaldsson’. Just don’t mess with Arty and Rolf.
Keen as mustard
Today’s meaning: to be especially eager
Many would have you believe this common simile developed from the famous Keen’s Mustard brand that was founded in 1742, however, the saying existed even earlier than that. Much like today, Ye Olde England was a drizzle-soaked isle obsessed with roast beef, mustard and despising the French. There is much evidence of this in the many contemporary cultural references, such as Richard Leveridge’s brilliant 1735 song ‘Roast beef of old England’ – “When mighty Roast Beef Was the Englishman’s food / It ennobled our brains/ And enriched our blood…” And roast beef wasn’t roast beef back then without the accompanying mustard – the real, nostril-burningly, yellowy spreadable-death stuff. The zestiness of the hugely popular condiment soon became a handy metaphor for a person who was particularly intense or eager, and remains so to this day.
Skeleton in the closet
Today’s meaning: A hidden secret of someone’s past, generally something unseemly
Those who have skeletons in their closets are either keepers of a macabre secret, or really, really bad at the ‘seek’ part of hide-and-go-seek. The presumed origin of this phrase is your standard 17th century visceral ghastliness, when a burgeoning fascination in anatomical study and dissection swept through Europe’s enlightened academe. The doctors and surgeons of the time didn’t have access to the textbooks and cadavers that today’s medical students do, and so, unburied human corpses were quite the prize. If a doctor was lucky enough to come across a free dead body (entirely feasible back then), they’d then go to great lengths to conceal it for personal study, rather than share or give over to superiors. It became assumed that around that time, quite a few doctors had a secret skeleton stuffed away in a cupboard. Another (more believable) theory traces the phrase to Gothic novels, where the ‘skeleton in the closet’ was no more than a clever and creative plot allusion to a character’s past misdeeds, specifically murder. But the doctors cramming dead bodies in their cupboards explanation is way more amusing.