What are you Really Saying? III: Ye Olde Editione


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

"Grab my wallet, I'm going to sneeze!'

“Grab my wallet, I’m going to sneeze!’

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

Mmm, boney

Might just stick to the bread tonight…

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

Here I come to save the day... again!

“Here I come to save the day… again!”

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

You're in for a jolly good hurting, sir

“You’re in for a jolly good hurting, sir.”

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

Rarely will you see a more appetizsng sandwich. Browns and yellows in delicious harmony.

Rarely will you see a more appetising sandwich. Browns and yellows in delicious harmony.

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

'I'm in ur closet, lol'

“The charcoal grey or the burgundy today, sir?”

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.

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Words of Endearment: The five most enjoyable words to speak


One of the funniest things about language is the fact it is ultimately nothing but sound. It’s just air rushing up from our lungs made noisy by that weird and wonderful muscle that is the larynx, then moulded and shaped by the even weirder and more wonderful muscle that is the tongue. Unlike all those unimaginative, monotonous animals that moo or quack, we can make an almost infinite number of different noises; so many that we even combine them into ‘words’. With these ‘words’ we built vast nations of language. Words that that are the threads of a beautiful poetic tapestry on the process of existence. Our words create not a jungle cacophony, but a graceful vocal dance, where delicate breaths of sound leap from tongue-tips like exquisite ballerinas – powerful and poised. Yes, beautiful words, such as ‘girth’, or ‘carbuncle’, or ‘plop’.

Well, they’re not all beautiful, obviously. But it’s interesting how often a word’s sound adds to its meaning. Is it coincidence, or a matter of ingrained association? If ‘carbuncle’ actually meant ‘a rainbow over nude pixies frolicking in a field of sunflowers’ – would we still think it an ugly word? Probably not. You see, when we were all living in dank caves, banging rocks together and running away from sabre-tooth tigers; whatever weird thoughts clattering around in our simple little brains were broadcast by impulsive grunts and nonsensical groans. Eventually we settled that ‘nngh‘ meant ‘stick’ and ‘uuggh!’ meant ‘Shit, run!  the sabre-tooth is back’. As we evolved, so did our langauge – but there remain some instinctively enjoyable utterings. Here are some of my personal favourite examples of words that are beautifully united in sound and meaning – or just plain fun to say.

Goblet

[gob-lit]

Vessels for drinking take many a name and form – cups, mugs, glasses, tumblers, flagons, tankards et cetera. But none are as mighty as the great goblet. Beer seems to make the most sense being in there, but you can put any liquid in, say lime cordial or cough syrup if that takes your fancy. What’s great about ‘goblet’ is not only the way it kind of falls out of your mouth and splatters over the ears of the listener; but how it’s almost an unintentional portmanteau. It’s a guttural splicing of ‘gob’ – as in mouth; and ‘let’ – as in, letting in copious amounts of fermented happy juice. So, so fitting. Ultimately, the word is just a joy to say, especially over and over and over again, until someone finally reaches for the actual thing to batter you over the head with.

Blimp

[blimp]

I’ve deliberately excluded onomatopoeic words from this list, simply because they are sounds – in a way. ‘Blimp’, however, is the onomatopoeic word that never was. In fact it could well have been any type of word. It would have made a fantastic verb: ‘…and then the  giant podgy man blimped his way from the buffet to the condiment bar, where he released a biblical flood of barbeque sauce upon his tower of chicken wings...’. Or even an adjective: ’…she was nothing but an argumentative, brazen and unashamedly blimp woman…’.  It could even have made a pretty top-shelf swear word. Imagine shouting at someone who just cut you off in traffic to go find an oak branch and blimp themselves with it? That would be amazing! Sadly, though, its only association is with those plump, tyre brand-sponsored bags of helium levitating above football stadiums, resembling many of the people wedged in the seats. And so ultimately ‘blimp’ has a tragic evocation to it – it could have been anything, but instead it was a big ball of gas.

Sumptuous

[suhmp-choo-uhs]

Apparently, many non-English speakers are struck by how ugly the English language can be. There’s no consistency, no style and rarely any elegance. Imagine if the world’s major languages formed a football team. French would be centre-forward, showing off its silken moves and fluid motion, while Spanish and Japanese would sit on the wings, mesmeric with speed and flair. From the middle of the park Mandarin and German would be in charge of keeping things short, sharp and precise, and the striker, Russian, would get all up close and aggressive. You’d line the back with Hindi, Arabic and Bengali, simply because they’re quite ubiquitous. And then you’ll have English, lumbering around the pitch, bumping into its own players and being both shit and everywhere at the same time. But, every so often a flash of brilliance would emerge from the clumsy haphazardry, and English would go from Ali Dia to Lionel Messi for one fleeting, glorious moment. That moment is the word ‘sumptuous’.  It’s classy, and smooth – like Audrey Hepburn ins a bathtub of custard. It sounds so apt that saying it is basically the verbal equivalent to wearing a ridiculously plush bathrobe and sipping some $700-a-bottle Tawny Port. In fact, if you soak a ridiculously plush bathrobe in expensive port and drop it,’ sumptuous‘  would be the exact sound it makes when it hits the floor.

Bludgeon

[bluhj-uhn]

Finally a word of violence! Any violent word is exciting in some way: punch, kick, smack, slap, whack, whip, triple-spinebuster suplex… all marvellous and beautiful phrases. But if I were a merchant of hurt; a bringer of pain; the undisputed world champion of agony – emblazoned in a big, mean font on my spandex bottoms would be the fearful alias: The Bludgeoner (safely assuming of course that wrestling fans wouldn’t recognise it also as a Harry Potter reference). It’s somewhat visceral, in a nasty enough way that even if you didn’t actually know the meaning of the word, if someone offered to ‘bludgeon’ you, you’d politely decline. It’s perfectly adapted to the Australian accent, too. It begins with ‘bl-‘, which is always promising start for an Aussie word- and the subsequent ‘uh’ is dragged right out of the deepest recesses of the throat. It’s so ochre that people with an especially broad accent (anyone living more than 25km inland from the coastline, in other words) can actually physically choke on it. So far no fatalities have been recorded, but that’s probably because only a tiny percentage of folks from that way posses a large enough vocabulary to run the risk.

Phantasmagorical

[fan-taz-muh-gawr-ik-uhl]

This is the big daddy. This is the one you save for a special occasion. You must light some candles, pour some Chablis and wait for the moon to appear before wrapping your tonsils around this one. You can go mad having fun saying ‘blimp’ and ‘goblet’, and you can soothe yourself with a relaxing ‘sumptuous’… but phantasmagorical, plainly and simply, is sex. It’s twisty and turny, syllables stick out here and there, and your tongue can get a little tired. Then after you’ve finally writhed your way through it, you take a deep breath and dive right back to say it again. Faster this time. Caution is advised though, you really cannot overindulge and go blurting it out all over the place. You’ll shock old ladies and corrupt the innocent ears of children for miles around. You’ll probably go blind, too. No, you must wait for the the conditions to be right, when your tonsils tingle and the lighting is moody. It’s such a special sound that it doesn’t even seem like a real word, and often as you find those six sexy syllables tingling on your lips you can barely believe you’re actually speaking it. But you’re sure as hell glad that you are.