Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Check Out My Expression

I present this one as a little fun for the 4th of July holiday. Enjoy the fireworks. 

It fascinates me that for the most part, we are completely ignorant of many of the expressions that have become part or our everyday conversations. The English language is full of things that many times meant something vastly different from what they do now, yet bolstered by our belief in the 'common definition' of such things, we use them as if we understand their origins and usage. I have been as guilty as anyone in this practice, and it is only recently that I have begun to question some of them. 

Quite frankly, I found the truth in some of these cases intriguing, and would like to share the fruits of some of that exploration in these origins with you. Please look at them and ask yourself what it says about us and our culture, about the English language, and about the amount of spare time that I must have in my life to be able to assemble this material (not to mention the warped perspective required to want to).  

I am sure that many of you have discovered other examples that I either left out in this posting or didn't know about. Please feel free to share them with me, and I will try to post more on another occasion.  

The bride’s father supplied his son-in-law all of the mead (beer made from honey) that he could drink for a month in Babylon some 4,000 years ago. Over time, this period became known as the “honey month”, which we know today as “honeymoon”.

 The expression “making money hand over fist” comes from the way that ancient coins were manufactured or “struck”. Precious metal blanks were placed in a fixture holding the dies for each face of the coin, which were held in the metal worker’s “fist”. They were then struck with a hammer to impress the forms of the dies into the metal by a hammer being held in a “hand” over those dies.

The expression “getting there before the rush” actually relates to a ship in the US Coast Guard. During the period in the world’s history that seals were being over-trapped in the Bering Sea, hunters used to try and get in to the area and out with their seal pelts before the “Rush”, a Coast Guard icebreaker, could arrive to enforce the regulations at the time.  

During the 100 years War between France and Great Britain, British archers who were captured had their first two fingers cut off to keep them from being able to use the English longbow, the most dangerous weapon of the time. After the defeat of the French in the Battle of Agincourt, the British bowmen left unscathed were said to have taunted the defeated French by raising those two fingers as proof that they could still operate their bowstrings (which was also known as “plucking the yew” for the tree that these bows were traditionally made from). This sign appears to have degraded into the use of one digit over time, and “the finger” was born. (I'm not entirely sure if this one is true, but it was such a great story that I couldn't resist it.)  

During the heyday of wooden warships, the ratings adopted by the British Navy became the world's standard. In it, ships of the first rate (of which the HMS Victory is the only surviving example), were ships of 100 or more guns mounted on 3 decks. Ships of the second rate mounted 90-98 guns on 3 decks. Ships of the third rate mounted 64-80 guns, typically mounted on 2 decks (and in many cases were more powerful than their 2nd rate cousins). Ships of the fourth rate carried 46-60 guns, while ships of the fifth rate carried 32-44 guns on a single deck, and ships of the sixth rate carried 20-28 guns. Ships of the first four rates were known as “Ships of the Line” (from the line of battle formation that was traditionally used), where fifth and sixth rates tended to be designated as “frigates” and traveled the seas independently. This is where the expressions "first rate" and "second rate" came from. (As a side note: American frigates, like the famous Constitution, tended to be bigger and better armed than their British counterparts and British captains were told to avoid battle with such ships unless they had at least a 2:1 advantage.)  

The expression “lock, stock, and barrel” also came from the time of The Hundred Years War. This expression, though originally thought to mean the sole possessions of the shopkeeper (the lock on the door, the stock in the shop, and the barrels used for storage of goods) actually comes from the three parts of the muskets used at the time. The “lock” (or flintlock) firing mechanism, the “stock” or butt of the rifle, and the “barrel” that the bullet traveled through. The expression appears to have been used first by Sir Walter Scott in 1817, though the phrase appears to have started in a different order: “Like the High-landman’s gun, she wants stock, lock, and barrel, to put her into repair.”

 The expression “don't go off half cocked” also comes from the use of flintlock weapons. The hammer had to be pulled back to its first locking position (half cocked) for the purposes of loading. The weapon was not capable of being fired however, until being pulled back to the second (fully cocked) position and was therefore useless when only half cocked, hence the warning.  

Many of the “Pirates in the Caribbean” were originally jerky makers on the islands of that region who would hunt the local pigs and bulls, turn them into jerky, and sell them to the Spanish ships traveling in the area. The Spanish, fearing the influence of these foreigners, killed off the animals to drive these people out. Having lost their livelihood, they begin hunting the ships of the Spanish who took away their livelihood. The term "buccaneer" derives from the French word Boucanier which stood for the name of the wooden frames used for their original trade.  

Masons were traditionally added by means of a secret ballot, which required unanimous approval. Voting was done by means of black and white marbles, with white being the affirmative. This is where the term “black-balling” came from.

During the early days of medical schools, cadavers were often supplied to the students by grave robbers. These enterprising gentlemen, not wanting to be seen transporting these bodies from the graveyard to the school, often stored them in barrels of whiskey to escape detection. Upon their arrival at the medical school, they not only delivered the body for a fee, but sold the whiskey in the barrel to the students as well … hence the term “rot gut whiskey”.

The term quarantine came from the 40 days that the people of Venice kept ships isolated in the harbor in the hopes of preventing them from spreading “The Black Death” to the city. As a side note, it didn't work.  

Both the German term Kaiser and the Russian term Czar come from the name and title of Caesar from the Roman Empire.  

After the Civil War ended, soldiers were required to go to Washington in person to obtain their veteran’s benefits. They were forced to sit as clerks went through bundles of documents until their particular papers were discovered. The bundles were bound in “Red Tape”. That’s where the expression came from.

The "carat", used as the measure of the size of diamonds, comes from the size of the seeds of the carob tree.

Many years ago a new game was invented by shepherds in Scotland, who attempted to knock rocks into holes in the ground with their crooks. At the time, it was designated as: “Gentlemen Only … Ladies Forbidden”, and the word GOLF entered the English language. This one is also rather shaky the factual scale, but again, I like it.

During the 1400’s a law was set forth in England that allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick, but only if it was no thicker than his thumb. Hence the expression “rule of thumb”.  

Early in the 20th Century, men began wearing short tailed smoking jackets as part of a greater trend towards cigar smoking. Later these jackets became adopted as standard formal attire, gaining their name from Tuxedo Park, NY.

The term “hot dog” came from a NY Giant’s baseball game at the Polo Grounds where a butcher was selling what he called “dachshund sausages” from a tray that he carried. These sausages were even wrapped in bread to keep the patrons purchasing them from burning themselves during their consumption. They became so popular that other vendors copied him, but the name was too long, and “hot dog” was used for convenience.  

Many frequenters to pubs in England had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they merely had to use the whistle to get additional service. The phrase “Wet your whistle” came from this.

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. This is where the phrase “good night … sleep tight” came from.

The racehorse “Man of War” was famous for winning almost every race that he ran (20 out of 21). In the only race that he lost, he was defeated by a horse named Upset. This is where the expression "winning in an upset" came from.

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