Do You Know The Origin of These Words and Phrases?

Three Sheets to the WindUrban Dictionary defines this phrase to mean “to be explicitly drunk; inebriated.” The origin is likely found in practicality: Sheets actually refer to the ropes that are used to secure a ship’s sail. If the 3 ropes used were loose in the wind, the sail would flop around, causing the ship to wobble around, much like a drunk.

From, we find something similar. “To understand the phrase “three sheets to the wind,” we need to enter the arcane world of nautical terminology. Sailors’ language is, unsurprisingly, all at sea and many supposed derivations have to go by the board. Do not be taken aback to hear that sheets aren’t sails, as landlubbers might expect, but ropes (or occasionally, chains). These are fixed to the lower corners of sails, to hold them in place. If three sheets are loose and blowing about in the wind then the sails will flap and the boat will lurch about like a drunken sailor.

“The phrase is these days more often given as ‘three sheets to the wind’, rather than the original ‘three sheets in the wind’. The earliest printed citation that I can find is in Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London, 1821: ‘Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind.’

The-Fisher-s-Daughter-Part-2-Mason-Catherine-9781167247231“Sailors at that time had a sliding scale of drunkenness; three sheets was the falling over stage; tipsy was just ‘one sheet in the wind’, or ‘a sheet in the wind’s eye’. An example appears in the novel The Fisher’s Daughter, by Catherine Ward, 1824: ‘Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr. Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure.’ The earliest manifestation of the phrase in print is the ‘two sheets’ version. That is found in The Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury, 1815, which recounts Asbury’s travels through Kentucky. His entry for September 26th 1813 includes this: ‘The tavern keepers were kind and polite, as Southern folks should be and as Southern folks ought not to be; they were sometimes two sheets in the wind. O, that liquid fire!’ That leads us to think that the phrase may be of American origin. However, Asbury was English, born in West Bromwich and travelled to America when he was in his mid twenties. Whether he took the phrase with him from the English Black County or heard it (or indeed coined it) in the U.S., we cannot be certain.

imgres“Robert Louis Stevenson was as instrumental in inventing the imagery of ‘yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’ piracy as his countryman and contemporary Sir Walter Scott was in inventing the tartan and shortbread ‘Bonnie Scotland’. Stevenson used the ‘tipsy’ version of the phrase in Treasure Island, 1883 – the book that gave us ‘X marks the spot’, ‘shiver me timbers’ and the archetypal one-legged, parrot-carrying pirate, Long John Silver. He gave Silver the line: ‘Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind’s eye. But I’ll tell you I was sober.'”


Duece Take It! – We who write Regency romances are always looking for a way for out gentleman hero to curse without appearing coarse in manners. Therefore, “duce take it!” appears often in these books. From The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, we find this meaning: n. The devil: used, with or without the definite article, chiefly in exclamatory or interjectional phrases, expressing surprise, impatience, or emphasis: as, deuce take you! go to the deuce! the deuce you did!

From The American Heritage ® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. The devil: “Love is a bodily infirmity . . . which breaks out the deuce knows how or why” ( Thackeray).
  • n. An outstanding example, especially of something difficult or bad: had a deuce of a time getting out of town; a deuce of a family row.
  • n. A severe reprimand or expression of anger: got the deuce for being late.
  • n. Used as an intensive: What the deuce were they thinking of?


rotting-fish-head-river-rocks-26740A fish rots from the head down gives us this definition: When an organization or state fails, it is the leadership that is the root cause. The origin of this phrase likely lies in some ancient proverb. Many countries lay claim to it – China, Russia, Poland, England, Greece and so on, but usually with no evidence to substantiate those claims. One source says it was written in a Greek text by Erasmus, who died in 1546, but this cannot be substantiated.

“All of the early examples of the phrase in print in English prefer the variant ‘a fish stinks from the head down’ to ‘a fish rots from the head down’, which is more popular nowadays. Those early examples all ignore the nations mentioned above and credit the term to the Turks. Sir James Porter’s Observations on the religion, law, government, and manners of the Turks, 1768, includes this: “The Turks have a homely proverb applied on such occasions: they say ‘the fish stinks first at the head,’ meaning, that if the servant is disorderly, it is because the master is so.’ The early date of this citation and the fact that Porter was in a position to be authoritative on Turkish custom, being British ambassador to the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire for 15 years in the second half of the 18th century, gives Turkey a strong claim to be the birthplace of this proverb.” Needless to say, the proverb isn’t a lesson in piscine biology. The phrase appears to have been used in Turkey in a metaphorical manner rather than using the literal sense for, in reality, it is the guts of fish that rot and stink before the head.


Brimborion (Pronounced /brɪmˈbɔərɪən/)

World Wide Words tells us that this “Weird Word” is “not a word that rises unbidden to the lips of English speakers today, nor — if the record is to be trusted — at any time. It means a thing without value or use. It was borrowed from French, where it may still be found in dictionaries, though firmly marked as literary. According to the lexicographer Emile Littré, who compiled a famous dictionary of French in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, it’s a bastardised form of the Latin breviarium, the source of breviary for the service book used by Roman Catholic priests.

“The link had been explained by another lexicographer two centuries earlier. Randall Cotgrave wrote in his French-English dictionary of 1611 that the word came to mean ‘foolish charms or superstitious prayers, used by old and simple women against the toothache, and any such threadbare and musty rags of blind devotion,’ hence something valueless. A rare appearance is in a letter of 1786 by the writer Fanny Burney, in which she refers to ‘Talking to your royal mistress, or handing jewels … and brimborions, baubles, knick-knacks, gewgaws.’

“It is much less weird in German, in which the closely connected Brimborium, also borrowed from French but given a Latinate ending, is an informal term for an unnecessary fuss. The sentence ‘du machst viel zu viel Brimborium um eine Kleinigkeit’ might be translated as ‘you’re making a lot of fuss about nothing.'”


Furlong (mile) – “Before the days when Edward I ruled England (1272 – 1307), an acre of land was understood to be such amount of tillable land as a yoke of oxen could plow in a day. The size was indefinite, just as was the  Latin ager, field, from which acre is derived. It was several times the size of our present acre, usually ten times the size, because in some regions at least the extent was measured as the amount which a team of eight oxen could plow in a day. This latter ideal field was a square which measured an eighth of a Roman mile, or a stadium, in each direction. The furrows were therefore each a stadium in length and, with the primitive plow then used, there were probably 320 furrows across the field. The length of a furrow thus became a convenient measure of distance – a furlang, as it was called in Old English from furh, furrow, and lang, long. But for the sake of standardization, the size of the acre was reduced under the statutes of King Edward. Thereafter it denoted an area which measured forty rods in length by four rods in breadth, although neither the rod nor the yard upon which it was based were of standard size. Then when the Roman mile of a thousand paces (mille passus), or about 1,618 yards, was replaced by the standard English mile of 1.790 yards, and the length of the yard became a standard measure, furlong became merely a term for a unit of distance an eighth of a mile or 220 yards in length, no longer equal to the Roman stadium.” (Charles Earle Funk, Thereby Hangs the Tale, ©1950, Harper and Row, page 127)


SitooterieWorld Wide Words tells us, “This word is a Scots colloquial term, though not a common one in print. It means a place to sit out in, a summerhouse or gazebo, from sit plus oot (a Scots pronunciation of out) plus the noun ending –erie of French origin that’s familiar from words like menagerie and rotisserie.

In the flickering light from a distant candle my partner and I sat in a “sitooterie” to partake of tea, pie and cakesMotherwell Times, 10 Mar. 1933.

“English newspaper readers suddenly started to see this word during the summer of 2000 because it was applied to an art exhibition in the historic landscaped gardens of Belsay House in Northumberland, near Newcastle upon Tyne. A dozen designers and architects were each given a budget and invited to interpret the idea of a sitooterie as a meditation on the perception of landscape. This resulted in intriguing structures, some practical, some more like follies. The exhibition had the minor consequential effect of turning sitooterie for a brief period into part of the English — as opposed to the Scots — tongue. It has since vanished again.

“Several Scottish subscribers have remarked that the word used to have a rather different meaning — a secluded corner where you could take your partner during a dance. It would seem that the word has either shifted sense, or the exhibition organisers have extended its meaning.”


That’s all she wrote – Needless to say a female author would find this phrase’s origin fascinating. World Wide Words tells us, “Let’s be clear to start with what the expression means. It always has an implication of finality about it, though it can be variously translated as ‘that’s all there is,’ ‘it’s finished,’ ‘it’s over,’ ‘there’s no more,’ ‘that’s enough’:

When it starts to get really dark — when the sky goes from blue to purple — I’m flipping back. That’s it; that’s all she wrote. I’m not walking through these woods after darkThe Talisman, by Stephen King, 1984.

Skipper Tom meowing and hopping around like he had the itch. Then dumped a load of cat crap all over a lobster trap. Jack threw it overboard to rinse it, and that’s all she wrote buddy, he was jerked into the waterThe Shipping News, by E Annie Proulx, 1993.

On the one hand it is obvious enough what the phrase means, but why should anybody drag in a reference to an anonymous woman writer?

“If one searches the reference books for the answer, he will probably come across the story that it’s from a bitter joke of the Second World War. An American serviceman opens a letter from his wife or girlfriend and starts to read it to his mates: ‘Dear John.’ He stops. ‘Well, go on,’ his listeners urge him, ‘read us the rest of it.’ ‘I can’t,’ he replies, ‘that’s all she wrote.’ Dumping letters were common enough to have been given the Dear John letter epithet at the time, though it starts to appear in the record only in 1945. It’s a nice story, but it’s a pity about the absence of any contemporary evidence for it, such as somebody on record as telling the joke or referring to it.

“Another suggestion is that that’s all she wrote comes from the words of a popular song, perhaps one that linked Dear John to it. A song by Aubry Gass and Tex Ritter, written in 1950, the same year Hank Williams recorded it, has the line: ‘And that’s all she wrote, Dear John.’ That arrived on the scene too late to be the origin. In 1946, George Crawford penned That’s All She Wrote, ’Cause the Pencil Broke, though similarly the dating confirms the title came from the existing saying. But there’s an earlier one.


The cover of a sheet music collection by Ernest Tubb The Ernest Tubb collection of 1942 that contains the song

“A World Wide Words reader, Michael Templeton, found a song by Ernest Tubb, dubbed the Texas Troubadour, who was a pioneer of country music on radio from the late 1930s. His song was entitled That’s All She Wrote and appeared in a sheet music collection that was published by the American Music Inc of Hollywood in 1942.

“American researcher Garson O’Toole, writing on the American Dialect Society mailing list, has unearthed three examples of that’s all she wrote from 1942. All derive from civilian contexts, so the prevailing view that the idiom is from World War Two servicemen being dumped by Dear John letters is no longer sustainable. Four even earlier appearances, all from Texas, were posted on the American Dialect Society list in October 2015 by Bonnie Taylor-Blake. The oldest is this excellent example:

No power except that of the legislature can change the rolls. The assessor-collectors do not have the power, the commissioners’ courts do not have the power. That’s all she wrote and it’s final, the attorney general says in language much more eloquent and technical. – Ralph L Buell, in his In Our Valley column in The Brownsville Herald (Texas), 16 Jun. 1935. 

“Ralph Buell clearly used the phrase in the expectation that his readers would recognise and understand it. The Texas Troubadour’s song is very unlikely to have reached such widespread popularity as early as 1935 and so has to be rejected as the origin. It’s more likely that it was an existing folksy saying among Texans that Ernest Tubb happened to make use of.”


Pall Mall – This name marks both a popular brand of cigarettes, as well as street in London. Both names came to the language from an old outdoor game. The name (and the game) entered the language from the French (ball, palle + mallet, maille). Palle maille was a popular 16th Century game that arrived in England during the reign of Charles I (1625 – 1649). “The boxwood ball used in the game was about the size of the modern croquet ball, and the mallet, also of wood, was similar to the croquet mallet, except that the head was curved and the two faces sloped toward the shaft. The game was played on an alley of considerable length, from the starting point at one end to an iron ring suspended at some height at the other end. The player was winner who took the fewest strokes to drive his ball through the ring. The most noted alley in London in which the game was played was the near St. James’s, now bearing the name of the game. The French name was long retained, but because of its pronunciation, the spelling was altered by some to pell-mell. Others, however, recalled that the Latin sources of the French words were respectively palla and malleus, and therefore insisted upon the spelling pall-mall, which; nevertheless, is still pronounced in England either as if spelled ‘pell-mell’ or like the first syllables of ‘pallet’ and ‘mallet’ respectively.” (Charles Earle Funk, Thereby Hangs the Tale, ©1950, Harper and Row, page 213)


Wet one’s whistle – Some claim this one comes from a tale that goes something like this: ‘Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. ‘Wet your whistle’ is the phrase inspired by this practice’. 

Although fun to read, there is but a “morsel of truth with a large serving of invention. They lie at one extreme of the spectrum of folk or popular etymology, and they’re a very good illustration of the way that mistaken ideas about words and phrases can disseminate.

One “can be sure that no pub cup or mug ever had a whistle fitted to it for this purpose. If one wanted another drink, he went up to the bar and asked for it; if the place was posh enough to have table service, he most certainly wouldn’t blow a whistle to get attention! You sometimes see such mugs today, but they’re the pottery equivalent of your a joke on a long-established saying.

imgres-1“In the expression, whistle is just a joking reference to one’s mouth or throat and to the fact that one can’t easily whistle when one’s mouth is dry. It’s a very ancient expression: its first recorded appearance is in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at the end of the fourteenth century, and it must surely be even older.

“You can sometimes find it as whet one’s whistle, through confusion with whet one’s appetite and similar words in whet, literally meaning to sharpen. It would seem that those who first wrote it that way, more than 300 years ago, were as unsure of the real source of the expression as many of us are today (the first known example is from a book of 1674 by Thomas Flatman with the title Belly God).”


Guinea – A special gold coin came into place in 1663. The Royal Mint of England created the gold coinage of twenty-shilling pieces “in the name and for the use of the Company of Royal Adventurers of England,” who traded with Africa. When they came into general use, these coins, designed for the specific purpose of trading, were called guineas, because the “Company of Royal Adventurers of England” were actually along the coast of Guinea. “At this period in English history the standard of value was not gold, but silver, and the silver coinage was in bad state owing to the activities of ‘clippers,’ who mutilated coins by paring the edges. The value of the gold guinea therefore increased to more than twenty-shillings’ worth of silver coin, or more than its face value. Accordingly, in 1717, its value was fixed at 21 shillings. After the establishment of the gold standard in 1816 no more guineas were coined.” (Charles Earl Funk, Thereby Hangs the Tale, ©1950, Harper and Row, page 139)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in Age of Chaucer, Canterbury tales, etymology, history, Jane Austen, real life tales, tall tales, word origins, word play, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Do You Know The Origin of These Words and Phrases?

  1. Crystal Cox says:

    Just fascinating, Thank you Regina.

  2. carolcork says:

    I love the phrases “Three Sheets to the Wind” and “Wet one’s whistle”.

    • I come across some phrases while I am writing or when I am reading another’s work that I must seek out to know if it is era appropriate. “Three sheets to the wind” was one of those.

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