From Where Does that Phrase Come?

words.1I am fascinated by the origin of common phrases. Her are some of my favorites, ones I have used repeatedly over the years. Add yours to the list, and we will see if we can find their sources.

the apple of one’s eye – In long ago days, the pupil of one’s eyes was referred to as an “apple” because the learned men of the day thought the pupil was solid, with much of the texture of an apple. By the 9th Century, however, the phrase meant “that which one held most dear.” After all, losing one’s sight was a dear loss, indeed.

to pull the wool over one’s eyes – This one is supposedly an Americanism. That assumption probably comes from the fact it was first used in print in an American newspaper around 1839. We must assume the actual phrase had been around for some time before it was used in print. “Wool” was used to make some wigs of the time. It is assumed some thieves would attack a wealthier man and literally pull the man’s wig over his eyes to blind him temporarily.

6a00d83451d9f869e200e550a2cf4e8834-800wijump on the bandwagon – The phrase has come to mean accepting a popular idea/cause. Often, a parade for a political candidate included a band of musicians. Those who endorsed the candidate who literally jump upon the band’s wagon to tell the crowds of their support. Although the practice was likely much older, the phrase dates to the second presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan.

up the spout – This phrase has come to mean “plans gone wrong.” “Spout” is slang for a pawnshop. In pawnbrokers’ shops, the hoist which carried the items to the storage area was known as the “spout.” The pawned items went “up the spout.” The phrase was first recorded in A new and comprehensive vocabulary of the flash language by James H. Vaux in 1812. In Dickens’ tale, Mr. Pickwick (in Pickwick Papers) discovered the meaning of the “spout” when Pickwick visited Fleet Prison to see his friend, Mr. Alfred Jingle, who was imprisoned for debt. Jingle had pawned his boots and clothing for money to buy food. Jingle said, “Spout-dear relation-uncle Tom.”

to look a gift horse in the mouth – St. Jerome, one of the Latin Fathers of the Fourth Century, is credited with the origin of the phrase, but it is likely much older. Various proverbs similar to the phrase are found in many languages. People have for centuries used the condition of a horse’s teeth to determine its age. The idea is the receiver of a gift would practice bad manners by examining the gift for defects.

f973385000618eeb589085a13beefee1wet blanket – This phrase can be traced back to Scotland some 175 years prior. Scottish author, John Galt, used the phrase in his 1830 Lawrie Todd, or the Settlers in the Woods.  “I never felt such a wet blanket before or syne.” Galt used the word in its present day meaning of a “damper, especially on joyful situations.” What was so unique about Galt’s story line was it created sketches of the American frontier, which made the phrase take on American overtones.

by the skin of one’s teeth – In Job xix, the preposition “with” is used instead of “by.” “And I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” Job meant he had escaped with nothing. The current Americanism did not come into fashion until the early 19th Century.The Skin of Our Teeth is a play by Thornton Wilder which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It opened on Broadway on November 18, 1942. It was produced by Michael Myerberg and directed by Elia Kazan. The play is a three-part allegory about the life of mankind, centering around the Antrobus family of the fictional town of Excelsior, New Jersey. 160px-Skin_of_Our_Teeth_Handbill

to have an ax to grind – The phrase was once credited to Benjamin Franklin, but, in reality, it comes from an article written for the Wilkesbarre Gleaner in 1811 by Charles Miner. Miner told the tale of an old man using flattery to trick a young boy into using his father’s grindstone to sharpen and an ax. Later, the man called the boy a “sluggard” for missing school in order to do the good deed. Miner closed the tale with this comment, “When I see a merchant over-politie to his customers, begging them to taste a little brandy and throwing half his goods on the counter – thinks I, that man has an ax to grind.” The story was repeated in Essays from the Desk of Poor Robert the Scribe (which was confused with Poor Richard’s Almanac and therefore the Benjamin Franklin mistaken attribution).

to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve – Shakespeare adapted a common phrase of his day: to pin something upon one’s sleeve. In Love’s Labor Lost, Biron says of Boyet, “This gallant pins the wenches on his sleeve.” Boyet has a great fondness for all the women. In Othello, Iago professes his devotion to Othello, but his actions are a facade.

to fly off the handle – In 1825, John Neal published the novel, Brother Jonathan; or the New Englanders. In it, Neal uses, “How they pulled foot when they seed us commin’. Most off the handle, some o’ the tribe, I guess,” in speaking of a surprise attack upon an Indian settlement. Judge Thomas C. Haliburton was the first to record the phrase in the more modern version of “to fly off the handle.” This was in The Attaché, or Sam Slick in England, which was published in 1844. The phrase means “to lose control.” When the ax head flew off the handle, the axman would definitely lose control. images-1

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in language choices, word play, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to From Where Does that Phrase Come?

  1. carolcork says:

    Some of the favourites:
    the bee’s knees
    call a spade, a spade
    cat got your tongue?
    marry in haste, repent at leisure
    take down a peg or two

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