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.
Cut to the Chase
Today’s definition: “Get to the point.”
In the early days of cinema, plots would deviate between romantic entanglements, bad guys with wiry moustaches tying women to train tracks, and a chase scene. It was a generally routine formula for early Hollywood directors to include the obligatory chase scene as a way of inducing some level of excitement in the film. Before long, a well-known maxim became popular amongst these directors, who would say: ‘when in doubt, cut to the chase.’
Put a Sock in it
Today’s definition: “Shut up.”
To ask someone to ‘put a sock in it’ is a relatively polite way of warning them to shut up before you punch them in the face. But there is a practical origin to the phrase, whereby parents of rebellious youths in the early 1920s and 30’s would literally jam a sock into the big speaker of a gramophone to dull the racquet of all that jazz.
Today’s definition: “A reliable assistant.”
Back in the industrial ages in London, every lad under the age of 12 who was not a soot-faced chimney sweep, was an audacious little pickpocket. People had names for their trouser pockets – and the ones on the side of the leg were called the ‘kicks’. It became known that the side kick was the safest place to store your shillings, as they were the hardest for the cheeky pickpockets to infiltrate. The faithful, reliable old pocket eventually became personified into the moderately wussy tag-alongs that accompanied spandex-clad superheros. Logical of course.
Get the Sack
Today’s definition: “To lose your job.”
This is derived from 18th century tradesmen, who feared being given an empty sack by their boss, as it meant they were to put all their tools and belongings into the sack and go home, jobless. Or, given the furious rate of land-grabbing from Victorian debt collectors, take their belongings to a rail underpass they were to call home from then on.
Hair of the Dog
Today’s definition: “Drinking whatever you consumed the night before as a way to cure a wretched hangover.”
This well-known and practice ‘remedy’ is actually a shining example of medieval medical science. Around the 1500’s doctors advised those who were bitten by a rabid dog to track the canine assailant down and extract a hair from it to apply to the wound. Usually the patient would return with another wound. The connection to drinking possibly came via the second recommendation from the doctor, which was to drink the pain away.
Keep the Ball Rolling
Today’s definition: “Maintain momentum and enthusiasm.”
Strangely enough this phrase doesn’t relate to sport – but originates from those with absolutely no aptitude for any sport whatsoever. Politicians. The phrase was a line in the 1840 US Presidential campaign slogan of General William Harrison, considered to be the first ever use of a political slogan. Harrison went one step further and even had a huge ‘victory ball’ prop made, and rolled it through towns chanting the phrase. It is not known when politicians then exchanged giant balls for babies to kiss.
Today’s definition: “A comprehensive victory”
The literal term ‘hands down’ is from horse-racing, for when a horse is so unbelievably good that the jockey doesn’t even need to whip it home to win. So when the lead is large enough, the jockey can loosen the grip on the reins and literally drop his hands down. Those who oppose the sport on the moral grounds of animal cruelty should note that if a horse would just really get a move on, there’d be no need to whip it.
Can’t Hold a Candle To….
Today’s definition: “To compare badly to someone or something.”
This is another term from the world of pre-industrial age trade, when apprentices were expected to hold candles for the masters to do their work. Those not even good enough to be trusted with the job of holding a candle were on the absolute lowest rungs of society. Even the candle was more important than them.
Spill the Beans
Today’s definition: “To divulge the truth, sometimes by accident.”
In ancient Greece, voting was done with beans. Citizens would drop either a light (in favour) or dark (against) bean into a jar to exercise their democratic right when it came time to vote in a new administrator or decide who wins the toga pageant. Often, during the ballot process, a particularly clumsy voter would knock over the jar and spill all the beans, giving a premature glimpse of the results.
Saved by the Bell
Today’s definition: “To be rescued by a last minute intervention.”
Although the phrase can be aptly used to describe a boxer being spared complete facial obliteration by the bell at the end of round, this phrase is actually derived from a deeply entrenched fear. No, not being forced to watch every episode of the cheesy mid-1990’s high-school sitcom Saved by the Bell; but rather being buried alive. In the 17th century, people were genuinely freaking out about the possibility of being buried in a casket without actually being dead. Frightful stories were spread about hapless souls waking up six feet under. Therefore, the somewhat ironic ‘safety coffin’ was designed with a small bell inside, so if the buryee did manage to revive themselves, they could ring the bell to be saved from certain, claustrophobic death.
Nothing to be Sneezed at
Today’s definition: “Something of significance.”
For some reason, Elizabethan nobility developed a hedonistic penchant for sneezing. Those mingling in the upper realms of society would often carry a box of spices and tobacco, so they could leisurely go about, sniffing the box and sneezing their faces off. It was something to do when you were bored. So if there was nothing around capturing your interest or attention, you might as well have a little sneeze or two to pass the time. Therefore it came to be that anything that kept you from sneezing was worth noting.
The Whole Nine Yards
Today’s definition: “Giving 100% effort.”
Back in World War II, many fighter planes were equipped with mounted machine guns, with an ammunition belt of about 9 yards in length. Particularly ruthless pilots would unload the entire length of the ammo chain upon an enemy, so they could later boast, over a dry ale and cigar, how they gave Old Jerry the ‘whole nine yards’ of their fury.
Stealing One’s Thunder
Today’s definition: “Taking success and veneration for another’s idea.”
In the early 1700’s, British playwright, John Dennis developed a new way to simulate the sound of thunder by rolling metal balls around in a large wooden barrel. He unveiled the new thunder sound as part of a new production. Unfortunately his play sucked and failed to draw much attention – but his thunder-sound method was taken and used successfully by a rival playwright for a production of Macbeth. Dennis was understandably furious and wrote a scathing message to the local press about it. And then everyone stole his complaint and used it metaphorically for themselves.