The Wonderful World of the English Language: From Where Does That Phrase Come?

words.1Do you wonder from where words originate? From whom they originate? Try some of these on for fun. They would make great story starters at a party. LOL!

Ketchup was originally a sauce composed of the juices of edible fungi, salted for preservation and spiced. The Dutch imported large amounts of this Chinese dish in the 18th Century. It was spelled “ketjap” by the Dutch from the Chinese word “ke-tsiap.”

There are several sources for this word, but I like the one which says it came from two Latin words: “sine,” meaning “without” and “cera,” meaning “wax.” Reportedly, Roman artisans used wax to fill cracks and holes in furniture, so the “sine” and “cera” became to mean “without flaws.”

In the early 1900s in the U.S., “jitney” became to mean “a nickel.” The word then transformed into meaning a passenger vehicle for which the fare was five cents. In A Desk-Book of Idioms and Idiomatic Phrases,” it is suggested that the word might have been a corruption of “jetnee” or the French jeton” (which means a token or counter).

There are those who think the word came about as the plant is indigenous in the Holy Land. However, as I am a great fan of the story of St. Cuthert (and the plant is also known as “St. Cuthbert’s cole”), I choose the idea the plant’s name came either from the holy man St. Cuthbert or even from the mystical island, Holy Island, off the coast of Northumberland, to which St. Cuthbert retreated in the 7th Century.

To Knock into a Cocked Hat:
This phrase comes the hats worn by both the American and British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The tricorn hats were often criticized because the brim was turned up upon all sides and of little use. Therefore, to knock a fellow soldier into a cocked hat was to knock the man useless. The phrase was first used in print in 1833 by James Kirke Paulding in “Banks of the Ohio.”

Sour Grapes:
Those who know the Bible know of the story of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the ancient proverb which says, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” One can also find a possible root in Aesop’s “The Fox and the Grapes.” Today we comfort ourselves with the idea that what in unattainable would only be “sour grapes,” after all.

UnknownUpside Down:
This expression only dates back to the time of Queen Elizabeth. Prior to that time, one would say “upsedown” to indicate an item is overturned or in a state of disorder. It was originally “up so down.”

Handwriting on the Wall:
In the fifth chapter of Daniel in the Old Testament, Belshazzar celebrates his accession to his father’s throne upon Nebuchadnezzar’s death. Belshazzar held a great feast and to signal his subjugation of the Jews, Belshazzar removed the golden vessels from the temple at Jerusalem, and he and his household and his concubines drank from them. Then “came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall.” The finger wrote “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” Belshazzar demanded the Jewish prophet, Daniel, translate the words meanings: “This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Tekel‘ Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Peres; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to Medes and Persians.” The fifth chapter ends with “In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. And Darius the Median took the kingdom.”

To Ride the Goat:
Likely, this term comes from the initiation of young men into secret collegiate societies. The earliest mention of the phrase in print come from George Wilbur Peck in Chapter 19 of Peck’s Bad Boy and His Pa (1883). “Pa” is given the instructions to say “A pilgrim who wants to join your ancient order and ride the goat,” when he asked if he wishes to be ‘nishiated.

A Donnybrook Fair:
Donnybrook, which is now part of Dublin, where a riotous fair was staged each August for some six centuries, beginning in 1204. The fair ended in 1885, but over the nearly 600 years of its life melees marked the annual week-long celebration. The phrase has come to mean strife of the most severe sort.

To Lose One’s Shirt:
In Chaucer’s “The Wyf of Bathes Tale,” we find “Who that holt him payd of his povert, I holde him riche al [though] had he nought a schert.”

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to The Wonderful World of the English Language: From Where Does That Phrase Come?

  1. Suzan says:

    Handwriting on the wall is well known. The medes and Persians overtook the city exactly as foretold prophetically in the bible. Isaiah also points out the name of the ruler Cyrus 200 years in advance of this event. The accuracy of these accounts is unparalleled. The media-Persian empire truly was a power with great conquests but eventually let conquered peoples rebuild etc. great history. I loved your example. I think there were 4 others that I was not familiar with.

  2. Is it not wonderful? Even when we are familiar with a phrase’s origin, it is nice to revisit the story behind the words.

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