Introduction: In this article (Part 4), 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.
- Break a leg: to wish someone luck in starting an activity; especially, to wish an actor good luck before a play begins. I have found four possible origin explanations: (1) If the audience stomped long enough, they would break a leg; (2) The term originated during Elizabethan times when the audience would bang their chairs on the ground – and if they liked the play or actor enough, they would bang until the leg of the chair would break; (3) The most common theory refers to an actor breaking the “leg line” of the stage; (4) When John Wilkes Booth leaped from the theater box (where he assassinated Abraham Lincoln) onto the stage, he broke a leg when he landed.
- Cat’s got your tongue: a person is oddly quiet. This idiom has two suggested origins. Origin 1: Liars and blasphemers in ancient Egypt faced severe punishment for speaking out of turn, bearing false witness, and saying something against the government or the established religion. Authorities would cut out people’s tongues as retribution for their crimes. Then they fed those tongues to cats. The offender never lied or blasphemed again. Origin 2: In the 18th century, the English Navy had the practice of whipping erring sailors with a whip which had multiple endings which was nicknamed “the cat” because it commonly had nine endings. After receiving a beating, while the poor sailor lay in a corner sulking or not speaking, other sailors would walk up to him and tease “Did the cat get your tongue?” referring to the whip. As time went on, this became shortened to “Cat got your tongue?”
- Jack of all trades: someone who is good at doing a variety of things. “Jack of all trades” was a generic term rather than a living and breathing individual. In fact, the very long list of expressions that include “Jack” exceeds that of any other name in English, and this reflects the fact that, as a derivative of the common name “John,” “Jack” has been used to mean “the common man.” This idiom dates back to the 14th century; an example is found in John Gower’s Middle English poem Confessio Amantis, 1390.
- Raining cats and dogs: it is raining heavily. There are several origin possibilities that all claim to be the correct one. Origin 1: Odin, the Norse god of storms, was often pictured with dogs and wolves, which were symbols of wind. Witches, who supposedly rode their brooms during storms, were often pictured with black cats, which became signs of heavy rain for sailors. Therefore, “raining cats and dogs” may refer to a storm with wind (dogs) and heavy rain (cats). Origin 2: “Cats and dogs” may come from the Greek expression “cata doxa,” which means “contrary to experience or belief.” If it is raining cats and dogs, it is raining unusually or unbelievably hard. Origin 3: “Cats and dogs” may be a perversion of the now obsolete word catadupe. In Old English, “catadupe” meant a cataract or waterfall. A version of catadupe existed in many old languages. In Latin, for example, “catadupe” was borrowed from the classical Greek “κατάδουποι,” which referred to the cataracts of the Nile River. So, to say it’s raining “cats and dogs” might be to say it’s raining waterfalls. Origin 4 (false): A false theory stated that cats and dogs used to snuggle into thatch roofs during storms and then be washed out during heavy rains. However, a properly maintained thatch roof is naturally water resistant and slanted to allow water to run off. In order to slip off the roof, the animals would have to be lying on the outside – an unlikely place for an animal to seek shelter during a storm. The first recorded use of a phrase similar to “raining cats and dogs” was in the 1651 collection of poems Olor Iscanus. British poet Henry Vaughan referred to a roof that was secure against “dogs and cats rained in shower.” One year later, Richard Brome, an English playwright, wrote in his comedy City Witt: “It shall rain dogs and polecats.” (Polecats are related to the weasel and were common in Great Britain through the end of the 19th)
- Rule of thumb: means something to represent a basic rule or principle. It is an approximate method for doing something, based on practical experience rather than theory. This usage of the phrase can be traced back to the 17th century and has been associated with various trades where quantities were measured by comparison to the width or length of a thumb. Another “rule of thumb” in history uses that term for the size of a branch that a man could use to punish his wife or children; the stick could not be thicker than his thumb without social censure.
More to come!
Note on the header image: “Genealogy” logo designed and copyrighted by Mary Harrell-Sesniak.