Are You Familiar with These Words and Phrases?

Bell the Cat ~ To hang a bell around a cat’s neck to provide a warning. Figuratively, the expression refers to any task that is difficult or impossible to achieve. This explanation comes from Phrase Finder. This expression ultimately derives from the fable, often attributed to Aesop, The Mice in Council. This story tells the tale of a group of mice who were terrorized by the house cat. One of them suggests that a bell be placed around the cat’s neck to warn of his arrival. Volunteers for the job are asked for but no mouse steps forward. The moral of the story (and with fables, there’s always a moral) is ‘don’t only consider the outcome when making plans; the plan itself must be achievable or it is useless’.

Bell the catThe attribution to Aesop is almost certainly incorrect. The tale doesn’t appear in any collection of Aesop’s Fables until the Middle Ages and is doubtless the work of a mediaeval mind.

The best known instance of the fable’s moral being put to work concerns the Scottish nobleman, Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus. In 1482, at a meeting of nobles who wanted to depose and hang James III’s favourites, Lord Gray is said to have remarked “Tis well said, but wha daur bell the cat?”, that is, ‘Who will take the necessary but highly risky action of openly defying the king?’. The story goes that Angus accepted and successfully accomplished the challenge. This story, like the Aesop attribution, is almost certainly a fanciful invention by later writers. While it is the case that the Earl of Angus was involved in an undoubtedly treasonable plot against James III, the ‘bell the cat’ story and Angus’s subsequent nickname didn’t arise until many years after his death. No earlier chronicler, not even Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie who was the official chronicler of the event, mentions the story. Nevertheless, the tag has stuck as an undeserved nickname for the fifth earl.

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March up the Cannon’s Mouth ~ Words and Phrases from the Past gives this explanation: The phrases means “to walk into danger unflinchingly.” The site provides this example: From: Jefferson and Liberty: Or, Celebration of the Fourth of March : A Patriotic Tragedy, By J. Horatio Nichols, 1801, A Romance of the Republic, Chapter V., P. 51/52

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To Court Disaster ~ WordWizard gives us an explanation of this phrase. “In the 16th century the verb COURT meant to ‘play or act the courtier’ (an attendant at a sovereign’s court) and also to ‘pay amorous attention to’ as Bob mentions above. The verb ultimately derives from the noun ‘court, an enclosed yard, which eventually became associated with the place where a sovereign (or other high dignitary) resides and holds state, attended by their retinue, and where the courtiers did their ‘courting.’ At the beginning of the 17th century the verb took on the more generalized meaning of ‘to seek to win or attract/entice/invite/allure (any one) to do something’ and thus went beyond the original courtly ‘courting’ and romantic ‘wooing.’ And in the 19th century some of those ‘somethings’ apparently came to include negative stuff such as death and DISASTER. An expression having a similar ring to it asCOURTING DISASTER – but not quite a synonym – is PLAYING WITH FIRE, which appears (?) to have emerged in about the same time frame.

COURTING DISASTER, surprisingly though, did not show up in any word and phrase origin books that I checked. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the relevant sense of COURT as “To behave so as to invite or incur: <‘Courts disaster by taking drugs’>.” And The Oxford English Dictionary claims that this sense of COURT meaning “To act as though trying to provoke (something harmful, unpleasant, etc.); to invite unwisely” didn’t come into use until 1930, and their one quote for the phrase TO COURT DISASTER is from 1986. I guess I don’t quite understand where they are coming from since I was easily able to find many examples of COURTING being used in the sense of courting a negative (e.g. ‘death,’ ‘ruin,’ see 1851, 1861, and 1875 quotes below) and I had no trouble finding examples of the use of COURT(ING) DISASTER dating back to 1863. Seems to me that they are clearly in error here and they have been duly e-mailed.

And I would also add that the specific relevant meaning of COURT that OED provided above (with its 1930 dating) is technically correct, but the usage of this word in COURTING DISASTER easily falls under the umbrella of their 1602 definition, which includes, “To invite, allure, entice into, to, from, out of, etc.” And that clearly covers the sense that the 19th-century examples below were referring to – no need to wait for special dispensation in 1930!

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Go Through Fire and Water ~ This phrase means “Pressed to the extreme.” According to Phrasiology, its origin comes to us from the Bible. Numbers 31:23  Every thing that may abide the fire, ye shall make it go through the fire, and it shall be clean: nevertheless it shall be purified with the water of separation: and all that abideth not the fire ye shall make go through the water.

Other common phrases that comes from the Bible include: Give Up the Ghost ~ meaning
“To give up entirely.” It comes from Gen 25:17: And these are the year of the life of Ishmael, an hundred and thirty and seven years: and he gave up the ghost and died; and was gathered unto his people.

I’ll Pin Him to the Wall ~ meaning “Acting out of anger. ” It comes from 1 Sam 18:10-11: Saul had a spear in his hand and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.

Nursing a Grudge ~ meaning “Having a long-term resentment.” It comes from Mk 6:18-19 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to…

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World Wide Words gives as “Fewmet.” 

“The fewmets have hit the windmill,” cried a character in Harvard Lampoon’s parody Bored of the Rings. Readers not familiar with archaic English hunting terms will have missed the joke.

Fewmets — also called fewmishings — are the excrement or droppings of an animal hunted for game, especially the hart, an adult male deer. For medieval hunters they were evidence that an animal was nearby; their condition gave a clue as to how near the quarry actually was. Huntsmen would bring fewmets to their masters to demonstrate that game was there to be chased and that the hunt wasn’t likely to be a waste of time.

Fewmets being shown to Queen Elizabeth I
A huntsman showing fewmets to Queen Elizabeth I. From The Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting, by George Gascoigne, 1575.

To make a proper assessment, the huntsman needed to know a lot about the ways of the animal: You muste vnderstand that there is difference betweene the fewmet of the morning and that of the euenyng, bicause the fewmishings which an Harte maketh when he goeth to relief at night, are better disgested and moyster, than those which he maketh in the morning, bycause the Harte hath taken his rest all the day, and hath had time and ease to make perfect disgestion and fewmet, whereas contrarily it is seene in the fewmishyng whiche is made in the morning, bycause of the exercise without rest whiche he made in the night to go seeke his feede. ~ The Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting, by George Gascoigne, 1575.

The word came into English during the fourteenth century and is from an Anglo-Norman French variant of Old French fumées, droppings.

With the decline in great landed estates and the hunting they offered, the word went into a decline, to become fashionable again in recent decades with the rise in fantasy fiction and role-playing games. The inspiration for most of the modern examples must surely be this:

    “I know what fewmets are,” said the boy with interest. “They are the droppings of the beast pursued. The harbourer keeps them in his horn, to show to his master, and can tell by them whether it is a warrantable beast or otherwise, and what state it is in.”
    “Intelligent child,” remarked the King. “Very. Now I carry fewmets about with me practically all the time.”
    “Insanitary habit,” he added, beginning to look dejected, “and quite pointless. Only one Questing Beast, you know, so there can’t be any question whether she is warrantable or not.” ~ The Once and Future King, by T H White, 1939.

In the exotic spirit of King Pellinore’s questing beast, these days the animal producing the fewmets is more frequently a dragon:

He’s going to where my dragons were! Come on, Meg, maybe he’s found fewmets!” She hurried after boy and dog. “How would you know a dragon dropping? Fewmets probably look like bigger and better cow pies.” ~ A Wind in the Door, by Madeline L’Engle, 1973.

It has become a useful substitute in such literature for a couple of coarser words: “‘Oh, fewmets,’ Schmendrick cursed” (James A Owen, The Dragons of Winter); “Speaking between friends and meaning no offense, you’re full of fewmets.” (Poul Anderson, Satan’s World); “Caryo intends to be caught, so she can kick the fewmets out of him” (Mercedes Lackey, Exile’s Valour).

The word has also been spelled fumet, which might lead to an unfortunate confusion with the concentrated fish stock used for seasoning that goes by that name, a relative of the Roman garum. The source of this sense of fumet is a related French word, originally applied to the smell of game after it had hung for a while.

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Katy Bar the Door can also be found on World Wide Words. Various sources down the years have suggested at least three. However, the more one investigates, the further away a simple answer seems to get.

The idiomatic expression Katy bar the door! (also as Katy bar the gate! and with Katie instead of Katy) is an American exclamation of the later nineteenth century, at one time most common in the South. The speaker is warning that trouble lies ahead. It’s still common:

[W]hen we abandon the belief in absolutes — such as telling the truth, being honest, and doing what is right — then Katy bar the door because there is no compass to guide us and our actions. ~ Galveston County Daily News (Galveston, Texas), 9 Nov. 2013.

William and Mary Morris’s book The Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins suggests that it derives from a traditional ballad, most probably the medieval Scots one usually entitled Get Up and Bar the Door, still widely known and sung. But no version I’ve found mentions Katy anywhere. The ballad tells the tale of an argument between man and wife about who should bar the door. They agree that the first who speaks will do so. Neither speaks, and neither bars the door. At night, robbers enter through the open door. Though the ballad is really a wry commentary on marital obstinacy and its consequences, the lesson is that not barring the door has led them to trouble. It’s conceivable that “bar the door!” was adapted from it to suggest unpleasantness lies ahead.

In 1941, the renowned American language researcher Peter Tamony issued an appeal for information about the expression. In response, the even more renowned Damon Runyon wrote a little tongue-in-cheek squib, syndicated in newspapers on 9 March that year, which told how a fine Irish lass called Katherine Sullivan Jale came over to America before the Revolution. She and her husband worked a trick on Native Americans by which she would entice them into her log cabin so her husband could scalp them and sell the hair. As soon as one was inside, her husband would holler, “Katie, bar the door” and get to work. This product of a mischievous imagination may be why some people have suggested the idiom was originally Irish. Please don’t perpetuate it, or the waters will be still further muddled.

An illustration of Cathering Barless.
Catherine Barlass, by J R Skelton, from H E Marshall’s Scotland’s Story of 1906.

Many World Wide Words subscribers pointed to a quite different story that involved one Catherine Douglas. Under attack while staying at the Dominican chapter house in Perth on 20 February 1437, King James I was holed up in a room whose door had the usual metal staples for a wooden bar, but whose bar had been taken away. The legend is that Catherine Douglas, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, tried heroically to save the king by barring the door with her naked arm. Her attempt failed and the King was murdered, but she was thereafter known as Catherine Barlass. Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a poem about her in 1881, entitled The King’s Tragedy, which has been suggested as the direct source of the saying, but the nearest Rossetti comes to the usual form of the expression in the poem is “Catherine, keep the door!”

In any case, we now know that it can’t be the source because US researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake has found examples that predate publication of Rossetti’s poem. This one, from two years before, shows that the idiom was already fully formed in the same sense as today:

To sum it all up, my advice to anyone thinking of going there would be “don’t,” unless they have a pocketfull of the “rhino” which they can afford to lose. I saw it was “Katy bar the door” with me unless I skipped, and I lost no time in skipping. ~ The Democrat (Lima, Ohio), 30 Oct. 1879.

A rather earlier one hints at a possible source: The Custom House Packet, with the Custom House colored band, U.S. Marshal Packard, in command, with the old flag triumphantly kissing the breeze of old Red, the band playing “Katie, Bar The Door,” and with waving rags touched the wharf and proceeded to land her precious cargo. ~The Louisiana Democrat (Alexandria, Louisiana), 2 Oct. 1872.

So the implication once again is that a popular melody may be involved. We have no way of knowing if the tune’s title was the source or if its authors were referring to something older that’s now lost to us. The context was an African-American event, the Radical Custom House Colored Jubilee, on the banks of the Red River at Alexandria, which may suggest a link with black popular music. But nobody has yet been able to establish what the band was playing and its title doesn’t appear in the various comprehensive online archives of American popular music. Jonathon Green suggests in his Green’s Dictionary of Slang that it was a popular American fiddle tune, though he gives no further information, nor any indication of how or why its title should be connected to the idiom.

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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