Do You Know These Expressions Your Ancestors Used? (Part 6)

Introduction: In this article (Part 6), Jessica Edwards continues her discussion of the meanings and origins of idioms (figurative phrases) that our ancestors used, focusing on idioms from the colonial period. 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.

Today I’m going to discuss some more idioms, featuring ones traced to colonial times.

  • A hard nut to crack: Benjamin Franklin was responsible for this idiom. He used it in a letter in 1745: “Fortified towns are hard nuts to crack; and your teeth have not been accustomed to it.” It describes a situation when something is difficult to figure out.
  • Armed to the teeth: to describe being overly prepared or too well equipped in a situation. This idiom is equated to the era of pirates, who wanted to make sure they never ran out of ammunition in a fight, and therefore held a gun in each hand. In order to be fully prepared, they tended to keep another gun in their pocket and hold a knife in their teeth.
  • Big wig: a way to describe an important person. This idiom came from the habit, in the 1700s, of wigs being worn by important people because they were fashionable – and the higher (bigger) the wig, generally, the more important/wealthier the wearer was.
  • Giving someone the benefit of the doubt: this idiom means believing someone’s story without proof even though it may seem unbelievable. Thought to be related to the phrase “reasonable doubt” that is used in law, and was perhaps first used during the Irish treason trials in 1798. It is reported to have been earlier used in the Boston Massacre Trials of 1770, but no written evidence of this exists. The current wording of the phrase was first recorded in the late 1800s.
  • He popped the question: an idiom that means that the person blurted out a proposal of some sort (it usually is used in the context of a marriage proposal). It dates from the eighteenth century, when Samuel Richardson used it in his novel Sir Charles Grandison (1753): “Afraid he would now, and now and now, pop the question; which he had not the courage to put.”
  • I’ll use my pin money: the Oxford English Dictionary says this idiom has been used by women from colonial times forward. Farm women would sew, sell eggs, etc., to raise extra money which they would pin to the front of their aprons and use to get “extras” for themselves or their families.
  • Missed the boat: means you have missed out on an opportunity. Thought to have originated in the 18th century, when it was used literally to describe someone missing out on a boat/ship journey.
  • Reached their last straw: means that someone has experienced an act to make an entire situation unbearable. This is the shortened version of the phrase “The last straw that broke the camel’s back.” This idiom has been used since the mid-1700s. The phrase has had many variations over the years. One version, dating back to the 1800s, states “The last feather breaks the horse’s back.”
  • Rubbing someone the wrong way: during colonial times, some Americans would have their servants clean the floors by rubbing the floorboards in a specific way, because rubbing the oak slabs the wrong way would result in the formation of streaks – which ruined the floorboards and annoyed the homeowner. Nowadays this idiom means to be annoying or to bother someone.
  • Slap on the wrist: describes a mild punishment, and probably came from 18th century England, as it was in this place and time that the word “slap” began to be used not just literally, but figuratively.
  • Stealing someone’s thunder: this actually has two meanings: 1) “to announce or disclose something – wittingly or unwittingly,” or; 2) “taking credit for someone else’s achievements.” This idiom came from the dramatist John Dennis (1658-1734), who created an innovative thunder machine for his 1709 play, Appius and Virginia.
  • That gets my goat: came from the practice of goats being used at horse racing stables, from the 1600s on, because goats were found to relax the horses. Competitors would kidnap rivals’ goats in an attempt to spook the horses, thus making them lose the race. This idiom has come to be used to describe when something is very annoying.
  • To break the ice: from the time when roads were not yet fully developed and ships were the main means of transportation and trade. During the winter, these ships might get stuck in ice that formed on lakes and other bodies of water, and so the receiving country would then send smaller ships and help the trade ships get free by breaking the ice for them. This evolved into the idiom, meaning to try to make a group feel more comfortable so as to cultivate friendship.

More to come!

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

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