Historical Stories Behind Popular Phrases – Second Edition

Photo Credit: Rich Grundy via CC Flickr

Photo Credit: Rich Grundy via CC Flickr

As I promised in an earlier publication, here are some more stories behind common phrases….

“Good Night. Sleep Tight”

In Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes, the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence the phrase…’Goodnight , sleep tight’ 

“Honeymoon”

It was the accepted practice in Babylon 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride’s father would supply his new son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the honey month, which we know today as the honeymoon.

“Wet Your Whistle”

Many years ago in England , pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim, or handle, of their ceramiccups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service.

“Kicking the Bucket”*

One of the more bizarre metaphors in the English language likens death to a bucket understandably confuses even the most eloquent and learned speakers. Probably the most likely explanation refers to a now-obsolete method of slaughtering animals for food. A “bucket” consisted of a wooden frame, from which the pigs or sheep or other livestock were hung, and the “kicking” element comes in when the expected neurological struggles ensue after death.

“Back to Square One”*

Several different possible histories of this curious idiom exist, though only one from 1952 seems the most likely. Snakes and Ladders, known as Chutes and Ladders in the United States, may not have sent unlucky players straight to the first square. But this did not stop an Economic Journalarticle from wielding it as a metaphor for having to start over from the very beginning.

“Heard Through the Grapevine”*

The wires utilized in America’s first telegraph stations oftentimes swooped and draped in twisted, random patterns. Professionals and onlookers alike believed the tangled masses resembled grapevines somewhat, eventually birthing a common idiom still used today.

“Riding Shotgun”*

Back when stagecoaches existed as the pinnacle of transport, the seat immediately next to the driver was reserved for individuals holding (of course) a shotgun. Such a strategic spot allowed the protectors to better ward off any bandits attempting to loot passengers. As engineering marched on into motor vehicles, the vernacular designation for the coveted spot stayed the same.

“Bottoms Up”**

You’ve probably kicked off a round or two with this salute, but do you know the story behind it? According to Jack, it actually has nothing to do with raising the bottom of a glass as you drain your beverage. He writes that during the 18th and 19th centuries, English Navy recruiters tried to persuade London pub-goers to join the armed forces by getting them to accept payment in the form of a King’s shilling. Dishonest recruiters would drop a shilling into the pint of a drunken man who wouldn’t notice until he finished his beverage. They would then consider this proof of his agreement to join the Navy and drag him out to sea the very next day. Once drinkers and pubs figured out the scam, they introduced glasses with transparent bases “and customers would be reminded to lift the pint up and check the bottom for illicit shillings before they began drinking.

“More Than You Could Shake A Stick At”**

Farmers with more sheep than they could control with their wooden staffs are believed to have inspired this phrase, which means you have more of something than you need. But according to Jack, there’s a second possible origin. “After George Washington was once seen waving a generals began to use the expression to justify themselves when they had not been quite as successful as the great man himself was in battle. ‘We had more men to fight than you could wave a stick at’ was apparently a common excuse for failure on the battlefield.”

“Cat Got Your Tongue?”**

There are two possible sources of this phrase, which refers to when a normally chatty person is at a loss for words, often for suspicious reasons. The first refers to when victims of the cat-o’-nine-tails––a whip the English Navy used for flogging––were left speechless from the pain inflicted upon them. The second, which is equally morbid, traces back to medieval times, when punishment “for liars and blasphemers [was to] have their tongues cut out and then fed to the cats.” Ancient Egyptian cats were considered to be gods (and would eat just about anything), so giving them the tongue of a liar was “seen as a human offering to the gods.”

“Turn A Blind Eye”**

The 1801 Battle of Copenhagen is at the root of this saying, which means to pretend you don’t know what’s happening, Jack explains. During the battle, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, commander of the British fleet, attempted to stop Horatio Nelson from launching an attack on the enemy. “When Nelson’s officers pointed out the order, he famously raised a telescope to his blind eye and replied: ‘Order, what order? I see no ships.'”

———————–

Sources:

*denotes – bachelorsdegree.org

**denotes – womansday.com

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