The Lovely World of the English Language ~ Why Do People Speak as They Do?

UnknownIn late February, I included a post on idioms and word play. It was a huge success, so I thought to revisit the format.

“Aboveboard” – No, this one has nothing to do with ships or sailing. Actually, it comes to us from those who attempt to fleece others with their skills of dexterity with cards or magic tricks. Those who practice to deceive place their hands “Under” the table (or “board”) to prepare their tricks. Therefore, “aboveboard” has come to mean to be without guise.

“To bone up,” as with one’s studies comes to us from the publishing of “trots” from the publishing firm known as Bohn. The “trots” were to assist students in passing their Greek and Latin courses. Therefore, to “Bohn up” was to study. Naturally, the word was changed to “bone.”

“Exchequer” comes into the English language from the Old French word (eschequier) for a chess  board. During the reign of Edward I of England, the King’s revenues were collected and overseen by a special court. This court used a checkered table cloth to cover the table upon which the revenues were displayed. Therefore, the court was to be called the “exchequer.”

“Mother Earth” comes to us from a legend retold from the time of the Romans. Supposedly Tarquinius’s two sons, along with Junius Brutus asked the Delphic Oracle which of them would succeed to the Roman throne. The oracle responded as oracles always do, with a riddle: He who shall first kiss his mother. Tarquinius’s two sons raced home to place a kiss upon their mother, but Junius Brutus fell to his knees and kissed the ground upon which he walked. “Thus I kiss thee, oh Earth, great mother of all.” Needless to say, which of the three became the king.

“Damask or Damascene” – In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the weavers of Damascus brought the production of silken textiles to the pinnacle of rich designs. With colors woven into the pattern, these fabrics became the choice of nobles. English weavers called the fabrics damask after the city of origin of the cloth. There was also a blush-colored rose from Damascus which bore the name of damask. Shakespeare and others spoke of “fair ladies with damask cheeks.”

“Foyer” – In what were often less than pristine theatres of a century and a half prior, the audience was often met with “bitter cold.” Therefore, between acts, they rose and walked about to warm up. In the entrance hall of the theatre, one could also find a fire in the hearth. The actors congregated around a similar hearth in what is known as the greenroom. In French, the word for hearth is foyer. Eventually, the word included the hall in which the hearth was located.

“Maudlin”– The origin of this word is found in the miracle plays of the late 13th to 16th centuries in England. The plays were based on a Biblical miracle story line or a story based on the life of a saint. They were initially produced by English religious houses, but eventually became the product of the various guild halls. Many of the favorite story lines dealt with the life of Christ, and Mary Magdalen was one of the chief characters of the tales. The French name, Madelaine, became the English “Magdalen,” which was pronounced (and often spelled) as “Maudlin.” Magdalen College, Oxford, and Magdalen College, Cambridge, are pronounced thusly. Therefore, maudlin came to mean a state of tears.

“On Velvet” – It is stated in the Wardrobe Accounts of Edward II that the British King had a kerchief of velvet (l courerchief de veluett). From the 1300s of Edward II’s time through the late 1500s, velvet was an expensive fabric. Therefore, to possess any fabric of velvet was a sign of prosperity. Edmund Burke, as Premier, in 1769, stated “who is always on velvet” lacks knowledge of difficulties.

“In One Ear and Out the Other” – The earliest English language reference come from a John Calvin sermon “upon Deuteronomie.” An English translator, Arthur Golding (who translated 30 works from Latin to English), gave us the following translation of Calvin’s work: “goes in one eare and out at the other.”

“Here’s Mud in Your Eye” – This one is not a toast to good health. In truth, its origins can be found in horse racing. If the track is muddy, the losing rider is likely to be covered in the mud of all those ahead of him. The phrase means: “I hope I win over you.”

“To Be a Piker” – Nowadays, the phrase means to be a gambler and a poor loser. This is an American term dating back about 150 years. Likely, it comes from the War of 1812 and Colonel Zebulon M. Pike. Pike’s regiment, ironically, often drilled with a pike in hand instead of a bayonet. A second source could be from Pike County, Missouri. Supposedly, those from the area who were lazy and uninspiring were referred to as Pikes or pikers.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in word play, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Lovely World of the English Language ~ Why Do People Speak as They Do?

  1. Suzan says:

    Very interesting as usual 😉

  2. Anji says:

    I love learning about the origins of words and phrases in the English language, Regina. I already knew about a couple of these (maudlin and aboveboard) but the rest are new to me. Thank you for taking the trouble to share this with us.

  3. I doubt many in England would not recognize “maudlin,” Anji, but it would not be ready knowledge for most in the U.S. Many of my students learned these because I taught the Advanced Placement Language and Composition classes. Instead of studying the literature, my students studied word choice, syntax, linguistic devices, etc.

Comments are closed.