I have always been fascinated by the origins of everyday phrases. Here, I’ve decided to explore some of the origins of my favourite phrases and uncover their original meanings.
The Origins of Some of My Favourite Phrases
The phrase ‘dead ringer’ refers to a duplicate of something, or a replica.
There is some debate as to the origin of this particular phrase. One possible explanation lies in the 19th-century horse racing business. Sometimes horses were raced with false names and false pedigrees. These were dubbed ‘ringers’. The word ‘dead’ in the phrase means ‘exact’.
Many people have dismissed a much more interesting alternative origin for this phrase. But since it’s so intriguing, I’d like to consider it as a possibility. Legend has it that in medieval England, they ran out places to bury people. So they decided to dig up old coffins, send the bones to a ‘bone house’ and re-use the grave. Reportedly one in 25 coffins had scratch marks suggesting the person had been buried alive!
To remedy this problem, deceased people would be buried with a rope tied around their wrist. If they were buried alive, their movements would trigger a bell attached to the other end of the rope at the surface. People were then required to spend the night in the cemetery to listen for the bells, this was known as ‘the Graveyard shift’. Those buried alive would then be ‘saved by the bell’.
In fact, the phrase ‘dead ringer’ does find its origins in the medieval period. When a person died, they were said to return to the place of their birth and ring a bell. Hence the expression.
Raining Cats and Dogs
The phrase raining cat and dogs means it’s raining very hard.
The poet Jonathan Swift wrote a poem entitled ‘A Description of a City Shower’ which included the lines:
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnips-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.
And so during heavy rains, cats and dogs were said to lie dead in the streets, drowned by the flood.
However, Swift was drawing upon an earlier, 17th-century phrase. The playwright Richard Brome included the line “It shall rain dogs and polecats” in his play the City Witt (written 1652). Polecats were incredibly common in Britain at this time. Perhaps Brome was using an already well-known phrase?
Another possible origin for this phrase comes from medieval England. People would build their houses with thatched roofs. To keep warm, cats and small dogs would climb up into the roof to keep warm (the warmest part of the home). When a storm hit, the animals would fall from the roof, hence the expression.
Cat Got Your Tongue?
Asked of someone who is silent or of someone who fails to answer a question.
The English Navy used a whip dubbed ‘cat-o’-nine-tails ‘ to flog misbehaving sailors. The pain inflicted by this whip was so severe that sailors were rendered silent. Also, sailors entrusted with a secret by an officer were threatened with the same whip or ‘the cat’ if they were to disclose the secret. Thus the question was asked, are you scared of the cat? Has the cat got your tongue?
In medieval England, cats (especially black ones) had strong associations with witches. It was believed that if a person saw a witch practising his or her black arts, their loyal cat would remove the person’s tongue to ensure they could not reveal to others that the person was a witch.
It is said that in ancient Egypt, liars and blasphemers would have their tongues cut out which were then fed to the cats.
God Bless You
Or ‘bless you’ is often said after a person sneezes. This phrase is also used to wish someone well when departing. It is often given as a blessing by the clergy.
In the 6th-century, a plague known as the ‘Justinian Plague’ spread throughout Europe killing as many as 25-50 million people. One of the early signs of plague can, in fact, be coughing and sneezing. Pope Gregory I ordered that anyone sneezing was to be blessed immediately by using the phrase ‘Deus te adjuvet’ or ‘God help you‘. Thus Gregory sought to use prayer to prevent the spread of the disease. In the 11th-century, Pope Gregory VII encouraged people to say ‘bless you’ as a shorter version of ‘I hope you may rid yourself of the bacillus’.
Since Ancient times, people believed that a sneeze would release the soul temporarily from the body. A “bless you” was offered to protect the soul until it re-entered the body. Some also believed that a sneeze would expel a demon from the body. The phrase was then used to prevent the demon from returning into the body.
In fact, the Romans believed the sneeze as something dangerous and powerful. And this is where we find the true origins of the phrase. The Romans would say ‘salve‘ or ‘good health to you‘ to the sneezer. Sneezing was considered by some to be an extremely bad omen.
Mad as a Hatter
Refers to someone who is utterly crazy, a light-hearted phrase.
The origins of this phrase are said to lie in my ‘neck of the woods’ – the North of England. Yet the phrase may also find its origins in 18th and 19th century France. Those working in the hat industry (this trade was booming in the 19th century North of England) would be exposed to the dangerous chemical, Mercury.
The victims of mercury poisoning present many of the same symptoms as madness. As a result of the mercury poisoning, people would become shy, irritable and suffer tremors rendering them ‘mad’. It was known as ‘The Mad Hatters Disease’. Dementia was also common among those in the hat making profession.
Turn a Blind Eye
Choosing to ignore information you know to be correct.
The origin of this phrase is attributed to Admiral Horatio Nelson, the British hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Nelson was famously blind in one eye.
During the Battle of Copenhagen, 1801, Nelson’s forces faced a combined Danish/Norwegian force. A cautious Admiral Sir Hyde Parker was the commanding officer. He ordered Nelson to disengage using a signal system of flags. Nelson disagreed with this tactic and raised his telescope to his blind eye and declared:
“I have a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal,”
Nelson’s troops continued the attack. Nelson was victorious, Hyde Parker was disgraced and Nelson was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the fleet.
Paying through the Nose
To pay more than something is worth.
The origins of this phrase are unclear, however, there does appear to be a strong Viking connection.
When the Danes invaded Ireland in the 9th century, they would ‘count the noses’ in conducting their census. They would then tax each nose. It is also said that if the inhabitants of Ireland refuses to pay the tax, their nose would be slit.
Bite the Bullet
To accept that something is difficult or unpleasant.
Before the invention of anaesthetic, doctors had only alcohol to offer as a pain relief when operating on injured soldiers.
The Doctor would ask his patient to bite down on a bullet as a means of distracting him from the pain.
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