Do You Know These Expressions Your Ancestors Used? (Part 7)

Introduction: In this article (Part 7), Jessica Edwards continues her discussion of the meanings and origins of idioms (figurative phrases) that our ancestors used, focusing on idioms from the 1800s. 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 from the early 1800s.

  • At the drop of a hat: came from horse racing in the 1800s because a race would start by an official dropping or throwing down their hat.
  • Ball and chain: to refer to a significant other in a joking manner. This idiom refers back to an actual ball and chain, which was a heavy metal ball secured to a prisoner’s leg by means of a chain. The ball and chain was in use in both Britain and the U.S. by the early 19th century (and possibly much earlier).
  • Barking up the wrong tree: this stems from hunting and is used to indicate someone is following a false lead or having a misguided thought. This idiom came from the use of hunting dogs, who would bark up the trees into which they’d seen their prey run. Even if the prey has somehow escaped to a different tree, the dogs may still continue “barking up the wrong tree.”
  • Being lovey-dovey: describes a couple who are flirting or hugging and kissing in front of others. Thought to have started in the 1800s and probably developed from rhyming love with dove.
  • Face the music: this idiom, meaning someone must face the consequences of their actions, has two possible origins; the first is thought to be true more than the second. The first claim is that this idiom originated from the tradition of disgraced officers being “drummed out” of their regiment. A second popular theory is that it was actors who “faced the music,” that is, faced the orchestra pit when they went on stage.
  • Feeling under the weather: dates back to early 1800s maritime culture when sailors or passengers on a ship were hit by a storm that caused the ship to violently rock back and forth. Those feeling seasick would go below deck to recover – so if you were “under the weather” you were feeling ill.
  • Flew off the handle: used to describe a person who was suddenly enraged. Comes from the 1800s, when some axes were so poorly made that when swung, the ax heads would fly off the handle.
  • Going on a wild goose chase: doing something that is pointless. This idiom is rooted in an old form of horse racing called “Wild Goose Chase.” The race involved several horses racing behind the main lead rider at a predetermined distance, and the race followed an unpredictable course.
  • Good egg (and) Bad egg: in Samuel A. Hammett’s novel Captain Priest, published in 1855, he used the idioms of “Good egg” and “Bad egg.” They are used to describe decent people as “Good eggs” and a troublemaker or someone who is dishonest as a “Bad egg.”
  • Jump on the band wagon: during election rallies in early American politics, politicians used horse-drawn wagons which featured a band. Those of the populace who wanted to show support for the candidate would jump on the wagon as it traveled about town. So, you would be said to be following a particular person or belief if you “jumped on the band wagon.”
  • Keep your chin up: originated during the Victorian era, from late 19th to early 20th century, in America. It has a close relationship to the expression “Keep a stiff upper lip.” The first written reference appears in an October 1900 publication of the Pennsylvania newspaper the Evening Democrat: “Keep your chin up” to tell someone not to give up.
  • Nest egg: money being saved for later. This is thought to have originated from the practice of placing fake eggs in the nests of hens to encourage them to lay more eggs which, when sold, would mean more money, or more goods that could be bartered for.
  • Put a sock in it: this has an interesting origin: it became popular when people used their socks to stuff the horns of their gramophones to muffle the sound (a type of early volume control), so it came to mean to stop talking.
  • Riding shotgun: means to be riding in the front of a vehicle. This idiom descends from the days of the Wild West, when the guard on a stagecoach sat next to the driver in the front seat, carrying a shotgun to ward off any robbers that might attack them.
  • Saved by the bell: given a last-minute reprieve. This comes from the world of boxing, when a boxer who was losing and on the verge of being knocked out was saved by the ringing of the bell, indicating that the round was over and the boxer could retreat to his corner for a brief rest before the next round.

More to come!

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

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