Introduction: In this article (Part 1), Jessica Edwards continues her discussion of the meanings and origins of idioms (figurative phrases) that our ancestors used. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 21,000 people to her family tree!
Idioms (figurative phrases) have been used throughout the centuries and may appear in what was said or written by our ancestors. Understanding these expressions will help you better understand what your ancestors were saying – and finding out the history of these sayings can be quite entertaining!
I hope you enjoy this series, and perhaps it will allow you to better understand what your ancestors may have meant in their letters and diaries, or in newspaper articles written about them – as well as increase your knowledge and vocabulary.
- Bad apple: a member of a group whose behavior reflects poorly on others, or whose behavior negatively affects or influences others. Can be seen going back as far as the early 16th century.
- Beating a dead horse: means you would be wasting your time and effort, because whipping a dead horse won’t make it run faster. Came originally from a similar saying in Britain (“Flogging a dead horse”) which some say dates back to 1630, while others date it to the 18th century.
- Beating around the bush: means not coming directly to the point. This expression is associated with hunting clear back to the Middle Ages, when hunters hired men to beat the area around bushes with sticks in order to flush out game that was taking cover underneath. They avoided hitting the bushes directly because this could sometimes prove dangerous; whacking a bees’ nest, for example, would put a swift and unwelcome end to the hunt.
- Bee in your bonnet: means to be obsessed with something. It is thought to have come about by people observing how bees seem to be constantly buzzing around a hive. Can be found in print going back to the 1500s.
- Bread and butter: refers to something you do or use to survive and/or thrive in a situation. It is believed to have been used back in the medieval period, and refers to buttered bread as a main food. In European and English regions, the peasants could only afford this one course as the staple of their meal, sometimes with thin soup. The origin of the saying is the concept of people working to earn their bread and butter. After working enough to earn this basic, workers could afford more items for themselves and their household.
- Caught red handed: caught in the act of doing something wrong or illegal. It dates back to an old English law stipulating that anyone who butchered another person’s animal would be punished. The condition was that he would be found guilty if the accusers caught him while he still had the blood of the slain animal on his hands.
- Chickening out: deciding not to do something (usually at the last minute). Used in the 1600s but then this expression died out, only to re-emerge in the 1900s, becoming popular slang around 1930.
- Cut me some slack: means “Don’t be so hard on me.” This refers back to the word “slack,” used from the 1300s on to describe cessation from pain or grief – but mostly it is attributed to use in sailing from the 1700s onward to describe the loosening of a rope or a sail, thereby lightening pressure on them.
- Cut the mustard: means to live up to expectations. There are two suggested origins: one says it was used as early as the 1600s along with other phrases that mentioned mustard to describe something powerful or enthusiastic; another suggested source was from soldiers slurring the order to “Pass muster.”
- Egg someone on: try to incite someone to take a course of action, perhaps encouraging them to do something socially unacceptable, criminal, or dangerous. This phrase usually carries a negative connotation. The verb “eggede,” from which the phrase to “egg someone on” is derived, has been in the English language since approximately 1200. It came from the Old Norse word “eggja,” which means to incite or provoke. The idiom to “egg someone on” first appeared in the mid-1500s.
- Fancy someone: means to be attracted to someone. Comes from a contraction “fantasien” meaning “to fantasize (about),” from the 1550s.
- Fit as a fiddle: “fiddle” here is the colloquial name for a violin. “Fit” didn’t originally mean “healthy and energetic”; it was used to mean “suitable or seemly” in the way we now might say “fit for purpose.” The first published usage was by Thomas Dekker in his translation of The Batchelars Banquet, 1603, in his reference to “as fine as a fiddle.”
- Getting cold feet: means you are changing your mind about marrying someone before the wedding. It is entirely possible that to “get cold feet” originally referred to soldiers who exempted themselves from battle by complaining that their feet were frozen – but a more intriguing possible origin dates back to the 17th century, when to “have cold feet” meant “to have no money,” probably referring to someone being so poor as to lack shoes.
- Give someone the cold shoulder: means ignoring someone, wanting them to go away. In the Middle Ages, whenever someone had a guest over, it was considered impolite to ask the guest to leave – but they had a custom that when the host gave the guest a piece of meat from the shoulder of pork, beef, or mutton already cold, it signaled that the dinner was over and the guest should get ready to leave.
More to come!
Note on the header image: “Genealogy” logo designed and copyrighted by Mary Harrell-Sesniak.