From Where Does That Phrase Come?

Catch Word is a word under the right-hand side of the last line on a book page that repeats the first word on the following page – circa 1736. It was commonly used in printing. The phrase has come into the language via the theatre. The last word of one actor’s speech is the cue for the next actor to speak. The second actor must “catch” the first’s to know when he is to speak.

mftyv5pudj8fz2colbnueyaA triangular plot of land is often referred to as a Heater Piece. The triangle looks like a flatiron, therefore, the name. Those who live in NYC likely have heard of the Flatiron Building, which sits upon a triangular piece of land at the intersection of Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue. (Dictionary of Word Origins)

A phrase often found in Regency romances is Carte Blanche, customarily referring to a gentleman of the time giving his mistress “carte blanche.” The meaning has come to refer to freedom of choice or full discretionary power. In French it is literally a “white card.” The first known use was 1751. It was the custom of the time for a man of wealth or importance to sign blank sheets of paper so a trusted subordinate might fill in the necessary order or letter of business upon his behalf.

Shiver My Timbers is an oath expressing annoyance or surprise. Most likely it is purely a literary invention rather than a piratical term. In 1834, Frederick Marryat used the oath in his Jacob Faithful: “I won’t thrash you, Tom. Shiver my timbers if I do.” Robert Louis Stevenson used the phrase three times in his 1883 Treasure Island: “Well, he [Old Pew] is dead now and under hatches; but for two years before that, shiver my timbers, the man was starving!” In 1949, in Mark My Words John B. Opdyke claimed “the expression ‘shiver my timbers’ belongs to cricket, referring to scattering or strewing wickets for which ‘timbers’ is a slang substitute.” (Heavens to Betsy, pg. 105)

cart-before-the-horsePlacing the Cart Before the Horse means exactly what it says – not putting things in the correct order. From Phrase Finder we learn, “An early reference to ‘putting the cart before the horse’ comes in George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie, 1589: Ye haue another manner of disordered speach, when ye misplace your words or clauses and set that before which should be behind. We call it in English prouerbe, the cart before the horse, the Greeks call it Histeron proteron, we name it the Preposterous

He was probably referring back to, or possibly translating directly from, a work by Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC) – On Friendship: “We put the cart before the horse, and shut the stable door when the steed is stolen, in defiance of the old proverb.” A hysteron proteron is a figure of speech we inherited from the Greeks, in which the thing that should come second is put first; for example, ‘putting on one’s shoes and socks’. It isn’t surprising that, when needing an Anglicised proverb to express that notion, the English turned toward what they knew best, that is, agriculture, and in particular, horses. There are more ‘horse phrases’ in English than those referring to any other animal, including ‘man’s best friends’, dogs. The notion of things being the opposite of what they rightfully should be seems to have played on the minds of the English at the time when modern English began to be formed, that is, in the 16th century. It is a common theme in Shakespeare and The Tempest, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream all contain ‘world turned upside down’ magical elements.”

Neither Hide Nor Hair is a cliché indicating no sign of a person or thing is to be had. The Phrase Finder says the current phrase is a corruption of one known in Chaucer’s time and meant “wholly or entirely.” Reportedly in the metrical Life of St. Cuthbert one finds: “Pai were destroyed, bath hare and hyde.” (Heavens to Betsy! Pg. 145) Josiah G. Holland used the phrase in his 1857’s The Bay-Path; a Tale of New England Colonial Life: “I haven’t seen hide nor hair of the piece ever since.” 

To Grease a Person’s Palm means to act in kindness to another in hopes of future gains or favors. In present day vernacular the phrase means to give money to someone in authority in order to persuade him to do something for you, especially something wrong. According to A Hog on Ice (page 81), “The present expression has been in vogue since the beginning of the eighteenth century, changed since the early sixteenth century only in the substitution of ‘palm’ for ‘hand.’ Our present form, however, is a direct translation of a French phrase of the Middle Ages, ‘oindre la paume á quelqu’un.’ Littré, the French philologist, tells of an ancient story about an old woman whose two cows had been seized by the provost and who then received the advice that she would have saved herself from trouble had she first ‘greased his palm.’”

A Chain is Only as Strong as Its Weakest Link comes to us via the 18th Century and Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1786):”In every chain of reasoning, the evidence of the last conclusion can be no greater than that of the weakest link of the chain, whatever may be the strength of the rest.” (Phrase Finder)

poor-richardA Watched Pot Never Boils refers to how time feels longer when one is waiting for something to happen. According to Phrase Finder, the homely comes to the language via Poor Richard’s Almanac, written by the venerable Benjamin Franklin. In a report on Franz Mesmer’s controversial theory of ‘animal magnetism,’ Franklin (1785) wrote “Finally another Breakfast is ordered. One servant runs for fresh Water, another for Coals. The Bellows are plied with a will. I was very Hungry; it was so late; “a watched pot is slow to boil.” 

Preposterous means contrary to reason or common sense. Its first known use was 1542. “Pre” is a Latin prefix indicating something at the front. “Post” is a Latin root meaning at the back. So “preposterous” should mean the front is in the front and the back in the back, but it does not. It is the reverse.

He Who Laughs Last Laughs Longest is a proverb from the times of the Tudors, but not from Shakespeare. In a play entitled “Christmas Prince,” first performed at Cambridge in 1608, we find “Laugh on laugh on my freind/Hee laugheth best that laugheth to the end.”


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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5 Responses to From Where Does That Phrase Come?

  1. vvaught512 says:

    Thanks for another invaluable post! I always find them so interesting and helpful.

  2. How curious I found this post as I’ve been looking up a few “catch” phrases to see if they were used in Regency times for a story I’ve been working on. It’s amazing how our modern lingo and visa versa slips into our writing. Thanks, jen

    • It amazes me to read something I wrote but 5 years prior and to find a too modern phrase in the passage, even with several editors looking at it. I recently realized that the word “scenario” is from about 1850-1860. Even with the idea of a word being used for 10-15 years before it shows in a dictionary, the word would not fit the Regency world. I have used it often, I fear.

  3. carolcork says:

    I always love these posts, Regina. It’s interesting to read the origins of so many phrases that are so familiar to me.

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