The Wonderful World of the English Language – Inherited Phrases from England

The Wonderful World of the English Language – Part Four

imagesToday we will look at phrases/words we have inherited from England.

Go to the Dickens! (or) What the Dickens!
Believe it or not, neither phrase has anything to do with the Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens. Actually, “dickens” comes to us from William Shakespeare. In The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act III, scene 2), Mrs. Page asks, “Where had you this pretty weathercock?” (in reference to Falstaff’s page, Robin) – to which Robin replies, “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of.” Many experts believe the term was originally “devilkins,” rather than “dickens.”

French nobles of the late Middle Ages wore a hood similar to those worn today in academic gowns for degree programs. This hood resembled the mantle or chape worn by priests of the era. The hood was called a chaperon or little mantle. The chaperon became part the full dress uniform of the Order of the Garter in 1349 (created by Edward III). Men ceased wearing the “hood” (except the Order) after the 15th Century when it became part of a female’s dress, especially ladies of the court. In the 18th Century, the present day meaning came about. Metaphorically, the chaperon shelters her charge much as the hood sheltered the person’s face.

A Drop in the Bucket (or) Sea (or) Water
The phrase first appeared in John Wycliff’s (1382) translation of the Bible. “Lo, Jentiles as a drope of a boket, and as moment of a balaunce ben holden.” (Isaiah, ix, 15) Charles Dickens used the phrase in his 1844’s A Christmas Carol. Marley says to Scrooge, “The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”

To Be Taken Down a Peg
The first written allusion we can find is in Love’s Labor’s Lost (1592) by William Shakespeare. “Master, let me take you a button-hole lower.” (Act V, scene 2) The actual use of the word “peg” appeared in Pappe with an Hatchet (1589) from an uncertain author. The lines read “Now haue at you all my gaffers of the rayling religion, tis I that must take you a peg lower.” Some experts believe the “peg” comes from a reference to “draughts” (checkers) in a game.

To Bell the Cat
This phrase means to undertake an unpleasant or even a hazardous situation. The allusion comes to us from an ancient fable in which the mice mean to hang a brass bell upon the cat that makes their lives miserable. The bell would serve as a warning for the cat’s approach. In Piers Plowman (written ca. 1360-1387), we find “hangen it vp-on the cattes hals (neck) thane here we mowen (we may hear) where he ritt (scratch) or rest.” William Langland, the author, wrote this Middle English allegorical narrative poem in unrhymed alliterative verse divided into sections called “passus” (Latin for step).

Tom and Jerry
In the U. S., a “tom and jerry” is a powerful alcoholic drink. A man named “Jerry Thomas (a nom de plume)” was the first to record the brandy and rum drink. However, its roots are founded in Pierce Egan’s (English journalist and novelist) 1821’s Life in London, or Days and Nights of Jerry Hawthorne and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom. The famous George Cruikshank illustrates the book. In the book, there is a “Jerry shop,” another name for a low class beer establishment.

To Trip the Light Fantastic
In John Milton’s “L’Allegro” (1632), we find
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as ye go
On the light fantastick toe.

To Keep the Wolf from the Door



Most of us have the image of a wolf as a symbol of hunger. We have likely said something similar to “He wolfed down his meal.” The phrase “to keep the wolf from the door” comes to us from English chronicler, John Hardyng (1457). In his Chronicle, Hardyng writes, “Endowe hym now, with noble sapience By whiche he maye the wolf were (ward off) frome the gate.”

To Have Bees in One’s Bonnet
Variations of the expression was likely used long John Heywood, best known as a playwright, used the phrase in his 1546’s Dialogue conteining the number in effect of all the prouerbes in the English tongue. Most experts agree Robert Herrick (a poet) added the word “bonnet” to the phrase to replace the word “brain.” In Herrick’s 1648 poem, “Mad Maid’s Song,” we find “Ah! Woe is mee, woe, woe is mee,, Alack and well-a-day! For pitty, sir find out that bee, Which bore my love away. I’le seek him in your bonnet brave, I’le see him in your eyes.”

Originally this was a rush basket to carry fish. The word came from the Norman-French word “jonket” or “jonquette” from “jone,” which means “rush.” The English had discovered the basket once meant for smelly fish could also be used to prepare cheese. The cheese then came to be called “junket.” In some parts of England, this cheese, which is served with a dressing of scalded cream, is referred to “curds and cream.” Later, “junket” came to mean a lavish meal (carried in the basket). In the U. S., such a basket is used for a picnic.

To Bury the Hatchet
We in the U. S. would claim this phrase to mark the time when hostilities between neighboring tribes of Native Americans would come to an end. However, we must make reference to a similar phrase in English history. “To hang up the hatchet” dates back to the 14th Century. It meant much the same as the Americanism…to take up friendly negotiations. In G. L. Apperson’s English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, we find in a 1327’s political song: “Hang up thyn hatchet ant thi knyf.” The word “bury” replaced the word “hang” in about the 18th Century.

I chose this word because it is one of those words I must take time in spelling. When I am writing my books, I must pause to think it out each time. Needless to say, “disheveled” means very untidy. However, in Chaucer’s time, the word meant the state of one’s hair, rather than disorderly clothing. Chaucer used the word to mean bareheaded or baldheaded. He spelled it “discheuel, discheuelee, disshevely” or however he might chose. (It is nice to know I have something in common with Geoffrey Chaucer.) The word comes from the Old French deschevelé, meaning stripped of hair or bald.



About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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5 Responses to The Wonderful World of the English Language – Inherited Phrases from England

  1. Anji says:

    Hi Regina. Thanks for another interesting post on the English language. I’d heard all of the above except “To bell the cat” and “Tom and Jerry”. For once, I even knew some of the origins, but most were new to me.

    And I love the image you’ve put in from The Princess Bride – one of my all time favourite films.

    • Tom and Jerry is a cartoon show also, Anji. Having “encouraged” my students over the years to read bits of “Piers Plowman,” the idea of belling the cat was not so removed. Is it not fascinating how the language is in constant flux?

  2. carolcork says:

    Regina, how about “to have bats in the belfry” – be silly and slightly crazy and behave in a confused way.

    • Believe it or not, Carol, “bats in one’s belfry” is an Americanism, rather than to have English roots. The first recorded used of the phrase was in a 1911 novel by Henry Sydnor Harrison.

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