Do You Know These Expressions Your Ancestors Used? (Part 3)

Introduction: In this article (Part 3), 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.

  • Birds and the bees: this is a frequently used idiom to describe sexual attraction/education. Its first use in connection with sexuality was perhaps in the mid-16th century, in a diary kept by John Evelyn.
  • Cream of the crop: this idiom, meaning the best of something, comes from cream being the richest part of the milk – and it rises to the top. The noun “cream” has been used to mean the best of any collective entity since the 16th century. “Cream of the market” was an early expression using “cream” figuratively, and John Ray used the phrase “the cream of the jest” in his 1678 collection of English proverbs.
  • Red tape: often used to express frustration with bureaucratic hassles and forms. This idiom is traced back to the 1500s when the practice of sealing official documents with red binding was used to make it difficult for people other than the intended recipient to open them.
  • Salad days: an older person may use this idiom to describe something having to do with their youth. It seems to have started in the early 1600s when Shakespeare used it in his play Antony and Cleopatra, and then it went into dormancy until the 1800s when it likened youth to the short life span of salad greens.
  • Through thick and thin: this phrase was originally “Through thicket and thin woods” (British) and means to keep going, no matter how difficult the circumstances. The earliest citation is in Richard Baxter’s religious text A Saint or a Brute: The Certain Necessity and Excellency of Holiness, from 1662: “Men do fancy a necessity [of holiness] where there is none, yet that will carry them through thick and thin.” The phrase had been in use in Old and Middle English, in the literal “thicket or thin woods” sense, for some centuries before that. The earliest known usage is in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Reeve’s Tale.”
  • Time is money: people use this term to urge someone to work faster or more effectively. A version of this idiom was first printed in 1572: “time is precious.” Even before that, the Athenian orator Antiphon said: “the most costly outlay is time.” However, the modern form seems to have originated in a piece written by Benjamin Franklin, in “Advice to a Young Tradesman” in 1748: “Remember that time is money.” Also, Charles Dickens used it in Nicholas Nickleby in 1839: “Time is money… and very good money too to those who reckon interest by it.”
  • Tit for tat: means retaliation for an insult or an injury. An English saying, this was first recorded in 1558 as “tip for tap.”
  • Tough love: this phrase, to describe a way to deal with someone with a severe addiction or behavior problem, became popular in the last 20 or so years. Using “tough love” to show someone you care by setting severe/strict limits with them actually was first used in England more than 350 years ago.
  • Turning a blind eye: means being accused of ignoring facts or situations deliberately. It is falsely attributed to Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), who was a British naval hero with one blind eye. The story was told that during one battle, the British forces sent him signals to stop his attack on the Danish fleet – but Nelson supposedly did not want to stop, so he raised his telescope to his blind eye on purpose and claimed he did not see any signal. He continued the attack anyway and defeated the Danes. In reality, however, this idiom is dated back as far as 1698 in England.
  • Until the cows come home: an old idiom that means doing something for a long time. This dates back to the 16th century, when it was used in literature. It came about because cows are notoriously languid creatures and make their way home at their own unhurried pace. That’s certainly the imagery behind “until the cows come home,” but the precise time and place of the coining of this colloquial phrase isn’t known.
  • Use some elbow grease: means apply more physical effort in doing a chore. This is not a recent term and actually dates back to the 1600s.
  • Wears their heart on their sleeve: means someone is openly showing their emotions, and likely comes from medieval jousts, where a “sleeve” referred to a piece of armor which covered and protected the arm. Knights would often wear a lady’s token (also called a “favor”) around their sleeve of armor. This action also spawned another idiom, “Asking a favor of someone,” for situations when a gentleman would ask a lady that he desired to give him a favor to wear in the joust.
  • Weathering the storm: describes someone enduring a trial or hardship. This idiom can be dated back to approximately 1650 when alluding to a ship that was able to pass safely through the bad weather.
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink: can be described as both an idiom and a proverb. It was used in about the 12th century and is often considered the oldest proverb of English that is in use today.
  • Your guess is as good as mine: means that you have no idea about something. This phrase is attributed by various sources as having originated in circa 1300, 1500, and 1902 – so as to its actual origin, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

More to come!

Note on the header image: “Genealogy” logo designed and copyrighted by Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

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