Have you ever nailed your colours to the mast, let the cat out of the bag or shed crocodile tears and wondered why what you did is described that way?
They are among a host of well known phrases people use every day which have a variety of origins.
Most have a source bound in historic acts or superstition- and some have quite gruesome explanations.
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We have chosen 21 of these everyday phrases to explain what they mean and where they come from
1. Nailing your colours to the mast – to defiantly display your opinion or beliefs.
Dedicated to those who make plain their beliefs and their intention to hold on to them until the, often, bitter end.
It could have been created with North East football fans in mind.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the origins of it surround the heroic actions of Sunderland man, Jack Crawford, over 200 years ago.
At the Battle of Camperdown in 1797, Crawford was on board the HMS Venerable, flagship of the British Admiral Adam Duncan, when it was surrounded by three Dutch ships when the top of its main mast was shot off.
Risking his life, Crawford took the flag, climbed the broken mast while still under fire, and nailed the flag to the top of the broken mast.
In the end, the Dutch were defeated as the Dutch flagship Vrijheid was surrendered to Admiral Adam Duncan.
2. White elephant – a possession that is useless or troublesome.
White – albino – elephants were regarded as holy in ancient times in Thailand and other Asian countries.
Keeping a white elephant was a very expensive undertaking, since the owner had to provide the elephant with special food and provide access for people who wanted to worship it.
If a Thai King became dissatisfied with a subordinate, he would give him a white elephant. The gift would, in most cases, ruin the recipient.
3. Read the riot act – to give someone a big telling off.
In the early 18th century an actual Riot Act was passed. It stated that any gathering of a group of 12 or more people that the local authorities didn’t like the look of could be deemed a “riotous and tumultuous assembly” and arrested if they didn’t disperse within an hour of the Riot Act being read to them by a magistrate.
The Act remained on the UK statute books into modern times and wasn’t formally repealed until 1973.
4. Letting the cat out of the bag – to disclose a secret by mistake.
As is quite often the case, there is more than one explanation for this saying, in this case two.
The first, staying on a nautical theme, refers to the Cat o’ nine tails, a whip carried in a bag which was removed – let out – to punish sailors.
The more widely held suggestion is to refer to a trick by fraudsters at livestock markets who would sell a piglet then hand it over to the purchaser in a bag in which they had placed a cat.
If the cat was let out, the trick was revealed.
5. Hoist with his own petard – wounded by something you wanted to hurt others with.
A petard was a 16th century French bomb that was very unreliable. If a petard detonated prematurely, the petardier would be blown upward by the explosion. William Shakespeare wrote “hoist with his own petard” in Hamlet.
6. To haul someone over the coals – to express anger with someone or criticise them severely.
Another literal one. In the middle ages, people accused of witchcraft would be dragged over the red-hot coals of a fire. If they survived the ordeal, then they were declared innocent.
7. Rule of thumb – a broadly accurate guide or principle
In days gone by the thumb was used as a readily available tool of measuring.
For example, the Tailor’s rule of thumb “the circumference of the thumb twice, is the circumference of the wrist, twice the circumference of the wrist is the circumference of the neck, and then twice the circumference of the neck is the waist’s circumference.”
8. Crocodile tears – to express insincere emotion.
Stems from a medieval belief that crocodiles weep while devouring their prey. Crocodiles do indeed have lachrymal glands and produce tears to lubricate the eyes as humans do.
They don’t cry with emotion though. Whatever experience they have when devouring prey we can be certain it isn’t remorse.
9. Diehard – a person who vigorously maintains or defends a seemingly hopeless position or lost cause.
A word that inspired the Die Hard series of Bruce Willis films, it was used to describe those hanged at Tyburn, who took a long time to die.
In those days the drop method wasn’t used so death by hanging was agonisingly slow, so much so that some of the condemned paid people to hang or pull their legs (not the origin of the phrase to take the mickey) to add weight and speed up the process.
10. Paint the town red – to go out and get hammered.
Appropriately it stems from one legendary night of drunkenness in 1837 when the Marquis of Waterford led a group of friends on a night of drinking through the English town of Melton Mowbray.
The night ended in vandalism after the revellers knocked over flowerpots, pulled knockers off of doors and broke the windows of some of the town’s buildings.
To top it all off, the mob literally painted a tollgate, the doors of several homes and a swan statue with red paint.
11. To pay through the nose – to pay much more than a fair price.
A pretty grim one this as its origin is ninth century Ireland after it had been conquered by the Danes. They imposed an exorbitant Nose Tax on the island’s inhabitants.
They took a census (by counting noses) and levied oppressive sums on their victims, forcing them to pay by threatening to have their noses actually slit.
12. To turn a blind eye – pretend not to notice something
I’m guessing a number of people with an interested in British history will know this one as it dates back to naval hero Horatio Nelson.
During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, his ships faced a large Danish-Norwegian fleet.
When Admiral Sir Hyde Parker flagged for him to discontinue the action – naval orders were transmitted via a system of signal flags – legend has it the one-eyed Nelson reportedly brought his telescope to his bad eye and said: “I have a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal.”
Most of his forces continued to press home the attack and he went on to score a decisive victory.
Some historians have said the episode was a battlefield myth, but the phrase “turn a blind eye” persists to this day.
13. Gone to pot – when something or someone becomes useless.
A number of claims on this one, however two explanations seem the most plausible.
The first is that in olden times when food was scarce, people would leave the bones, fat and nasty bits behind after eating their meal to be used for the “pot” in which soup was made.
The second dates from the industrial revolution and early mass-production when defective parts would be sent back to the smelting room to be melted down and re-cast a second time.
Since the smelting was done in a giant pot, these defective parts had “gone to pot”.
14. Resting on your laurels – to be satisfied with past achievements and make no effort for further success.
This dates back to leaders and athletic stars of ancient Greece.
In Hellenic times, Apollo, the god of music, prophecy and poetry, was usually depicted with a crown of laurel leaves which became a symbol of status and achievement.
Victorious athletes Ancient Greek Phythian Games, a forerunner of the Olympics, founded roughly in the 6th century BC, received wreaths made of laurel branches, and the Romans later adopted the practice and presented wreaths to generals who won important battles.
Those who received them were able to “rest on their laurels” by basking in the glory of past achievements.
The negative connotation, and the saying, only came about long after the decline of the Ancient Greek and Roman empires.
15. Saved by the bell – a last minute reprieve.
Comes from a fear of being buried alive. String was tied to the deceased’s wrist and passed through the coffin lid, up through the ground and tied to a bell.
Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift) and listen in case the corpse was not really dead and was ringing the bell.
Holding a wake can also be thrown in the mix as it comes from a similar fear of being buried alive and is a party held to make sure the corpse didn’t “wake” up.
16. Running amok – commonly used to describe wild or erratic behaviour.
The saying was popularised in the 18th and 19th centuries, when European visitors to Malaysia learned of a peculiar mental affliction that caused otherwise normal tribesmen to go on brutal and seemingly random killing sprees.
Amo – derived from the “Amuco,” a band of Javanese and Malay warriors who were known for their penchant for indiscriminate violence—was initially a source of morbid fascination for Westerners.
Writing in 1772, the famed Teesside explorer Captain James Cook noted that “to run amok is to … sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage.”
Once thought to be the result of possession by evil spirits, the phenomenon later found its way into psychiatric manuals. It remains a diagnosable mental condition to this day.
17. Bless you! – a wish of good health.
Saying this after someone sneezes dates back to the sixth century, when a plague spread across much of Europe and the Near East.
Pope Gregory started the trend of saying “bless you” after a sneeze, as a sneeze was often the first sign of infection.
This brings to mind the nursery rhyme Ring a Ring o’ Roses – and the lines ‘A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down’, also reputedly based on the plague, the roses being the red rash seen on a victim’s chest
18. Basket Case – when something or somebody becomes useless.
Another grim one. The phrase originated after First World War soldiers who had lost all their limbs were reported to have been carried around in baskets.
In 1919, a bulletin was issued by the US Command on Public Information, saying: “The Surgeon General of the Army denies that there is any foundation for stories that have been circulated of the existence of ‘basket cases’ in our hospitals.”
19. By and large – on the whole, everything considered
Nautical in origin, 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.
So for mariners, “by and large” referred to trawling the seas in any and all directions relative to the wind.
20.A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – it’s better to be content with what you have than to risk losing everything by seeking to get more
This medieval proverb comes from the sport of falconry, where the ‘bird in the hand’ (the preying falcon) was worth more than ‘two in the bush’ – the prey
21. Hair of the dog that bit you – the shorter version, hair of the dog, is better known as alcohol that is consumed with the aim of lessening the effects of a hangover
It comes from a medieval saying, originating from the belief that once bitten by a rabid dog, the victim would be cured by applying the same dog’s hair to the wound.
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