The Lovely World of the English Language ~ Do You Know These Idioms?

Unknown Are you like me? Do you wonder from where a particular phrase originates? I am often in a position to search out a phrase or a word to determine whether it is too modern for my writings set in the Regency Period of British History. I once had an editor who changed my sentence from “He donned his cloak and beaver” to “He donned his cloak with the beaver lining.” For those of you reading this who are not aware, a “beaver” was a type of hat worn by gentlemen of the Regency period.

So, what are some of you favorite phrases? These are ones which have always brought forth my curiosity…

“Crying Uncle”
Being from West Virginia, colloquialisms abound in my language. The boys would often taunt each other to cry “uncle” or even to cry “cavey.” The “uncle” part could be traced to the Latin phrase, Patrue mi patruissinme, which means “Uncle, my best of uncles!” – a fair cry for someone crying quits in a matter of wills. Meanwhile “cavey” is a corrupted contraction of peccavi, meaning “I am at fault.”

notes2p6.JPG “Whipping Boy”
We know this phrase lies in the use of a scapegoat for an inflicted punishment. Some five hundred years prior, a royal prince was considered sacred; therefore, no governess or tutor would dare to strike the child. In the early 1600s in England, a “whipping boy” was presented with the punishment meant for the prince. The son of James I (who was to become Charles I) was the first reportedly to be given the reprieve of a punishment at the expense of a lad known as William Murray, his fellow pupil.

“On Tick”
This was originally a form of an IOU. “On Ticket” was a form of note of hand, a written notice of indebtedness. The contracted “On Tick” came into use in the early 17th Century. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the phrase first coming into use in 1642, but we know such words and phrases are likely around for 20 years or more before they show up in a dictionary.

“High Jinks”
This phrase was first used by Sir Walter Scott in Guy Mannering: “[t]he frolicsome company had begun to practicse the ancient and now forgotten pastime of High Jinks.”

“On the Carpet”
Originally “on the carpet” referred to something “on the table,” meaning something to discuss. However, in the early 18th Century, the mistress of the house placed the table coverings upon the floors of their bedchambers. Later, a servant might “walk the carpet,” meaning he/she was called before his/her master or mistress for a reprimand. We in America have transformed the phrase to “on the carpet.”

not_worth_a_hill_of_beans_tshirt.jpg “Not Worth a Hill of Beans”
This is one of the oldest phrases common to our language. Robert of Gloucester used it in his English Chronicles of 1297:
Be king of alimayne sende specialliche inou
To king Ion bat he wipdrowe him of is wou
& vnderuenge be erchebissop holichurche al clene
Lete abbe ir franchise & al nas wurp a bene.
{The king of Almain sent especially to king John to forget his hurt, and receive the archbishop, and let Holy Church have her franchise, clear and clean; although not worth a bean.}
Americans inserted the “Hill” to the phrase during the later part of the 1800s. It added an exaggerated emphasis, a characteristic common to Americanisms.

GOP-Spite-Your-Face.jpg “Cutting Off One’s Nose to Spite His Face”
This one likely stems from a French 17th Century phrase. In the 1658 Historiettes of Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux, one finds “Henri iv conçut fot bien que détruire Paris, c’étoit, comme on dit, se couper le nez pour faire dépit à son visage.” Essentially, this says Henry IV would know destroying Paris would be as foolish as cutting off his own nose. The French phrase made its way to England by the end of the 18th Century and was recorded in Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” (1796).

“Alpha and Omega”
Needless to say, these are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and the meaning comes from that particular fact, but did you know that “alpha” and “omega” are found in the Bible in the “The Revelation of St. John the Divine”? The phrase is repeated four times: in both the 8th and the 11th verses of chapter one; in the 6th verse of chapter 21; and in the 13th verse of chapter 22.

This term became popular in the early 1900s in the United States as a slang term for a nickel. The term was transferred to the passenger vehicle (except for a streetcar) which required a five-cent fare. Dr. F. H. Vizetelly suggests the word might be a corruption of jetnée in a catch song of the French-speaking Louisiana Negro:

Mettons jetnée dans li trou
Et parcourons sur la rue –
Mettons jetnée – si non vous
Vous promenez à pied nu!
(Translation: Put a jitney in the slot; And over the street you ride; Put a jitney – for it not; You’ll foot it on your hide.)

“Fortnight” or “Sennight”
The Anglo-Saxons who had conquered Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries did not accept the idea of seven days = one week. Instead, they clung to the traditional phrasing of calling a week “seven nights.” Their term became seofon nihta in Old English, which was eventually corrupted into the term sennight. For those of us who write Regency pieces, a “sennight” is 7 days. Austen uses the word when Mr. Collins assures Mr. Darcy that Lady Catherine was well when he had last seen her a “sennight” past. “Fortnight” comes from the Old English feowertene nihta, meaning 14 nights – eventually contracted into “fortnight.”

In the early 16th Century Milan traders flocked to English ports, bringing with them products from Milan and from Lombardy – chief among them textile goods such as Milan gloves and lace and ribbons, as well as steel work. At the time, the English pronounced “Milan” as if the city’s name rhymed with “villain.” Therefore, Milan merchants became “Milaners,” which was pronounced as if it were “milliners.” Thus, “Milliner” became the accepted spelling. The use of “millinery” to refer to women’s headgear came about in the years which followed.

So, tell me some of your favorites. Are there those we should search out together? Perhaps, I should make this a regular feature on my blog. It was certainly fun to organize.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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18 Responses to The Lovely World of the English Language ~ Do You Know These Idioms?

  1. Loved it!
    So many of these I didn’t know!

  2. Do you not simply love exploring word choices?

  3. carolcork says:

    “Cutting off one’s nose to spite his face” is one of my favourites. I like “You can’t have your cake and eat it” which means you can’t have it both ways and you can’t have the best of both worlds. An early recording of the phrase is in a letter on 14 March 1538 from Thomas, Duke of Norfolk to Thomas Cromwell, as “a man can not have his cake and eate his cake”.

  4. TessQ says:

    Enjoyed this post, Regina – thanks! I love learning the origins of phrases (in fact I have subscribed for some years to a ‘Phrase of the Week’ email post) — and I spend time, too, looking some up for application to the Regency period. It always fascinates me how many phrases stem originally from the Navy, perhaps a post about that would be fun too (if you continue this)

  5. RO says:

    This is cool! Thanks 🙂

  6. Those are wonderful! Blue-deviled is one of my favorites. tweeted and shared.

  7. I have started a new series – just once per month with words and phrases and their origins. I hope you’ll return for more of these.
    Thanks for the kind words.

    • JanisB says:

      Fascinating! Yes, I’ll surely be back for more. Any definitive word on spot-on? I looked that one up — it would have been spot-on for a particular piece of dialogue, and could not find a reference before the 1940s. Not sure if that’s true because I can’t find the reference again. LOL!

      • The origin is military. “Spot on” has a short entry in Eric Partridge, “A Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British”: “Right on the spot, orig. dead centre on target: RAF: WW2 and after. Adopted by civilians in UK, in Aus., in S. Africa. Cf ‘bang on!’ and ‘right on!'”
        When it means “in exactly the right place,” we think it comes from India and the snooker-based game of billiards. The six colored balls were each placed on their respective spots on the table after they had been sunk. The placement of the coloured balls, unlike the red balls, which were permanently sunk when potted, were critical to the game, so the person re-spotting the coloured balls, other than the red ones, had to precisely on on the correct spot, or “spot on,” for the game to be fairly played. The critical nature originated from the size of the table, which was 6′ x 12’, and the tightness of the pockets 1.5 times ball diameter (compared to the “sloppy” 2 times ball diameter of today’s game).
        Fraser’s Phrases gives us something similar: So, let’s start with a game. Billiards, to be precise, which came from colonial India. Unlike pool, once you’ve potted the red ball, it must be returned to its starting position, which is the spot where the black ball goes in a game of snooker. So the phrase spot on evolved, as a simple expression of extreme accuracy. This then was applied to other aspects of life, and found to be a fairly decent way to convey delight and support.

  8. lupa08 says:

    Really interesting blog. But I can’t believe the truth behind “whipping boy”! Nauseating…

    • Lupa08, there is an early middle school book called The Whipping Boy, which is a Newbery medal-winning children’s book by Sid Fleischman, published in 1987. Prince Horace and Jemmy are the main characters. And do not forget Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.”

      • lupa08 says:

        Oh, but who can forget Twain’s words of wisdom. Only, despite the stark reality he portrays, we can hope for a happy ending. But to use a child’s adversity as an excuse to inflict punishment for another’s crime so openly… As if the injustice of a lowly birth isn’t enough.
        Thank you for introducing the school book by Fleischman. I’ll have to muster up the courage to read it, given what the title portents. They read it to children, really?

      • The Whipping Boy is much more light hearted than one might think from the title. Prince Horace can be spoiled and, craving attention from his father, he frequently misbehaves—to the point he is nicknamed “Prince Brat.” Since he is a prince, no one may raise a hand against him. Therefore, his family provides him with a whipping boy, Jemmy, an orphaned boy who will be punished in the prince’s stead. Though he has learned to read, write and do mathematics while living in the castle, Jemmy is beaten several times a day and longs for the freedom he had on the streets. When the prince decides to run away on a whim he demands that Jemmy act as his servant during his journey. While on the run, the boys are picked up by two notorious highwaymen, Hold-Your-Nose Billy and Cutwater, who hatch a scheme to ransom the prince. Jemmy talks them into believing that he is the prince, and sets into motion a plan of escape. We taught it in sixth grade when I was a middle school teacher.

      • lupa08 says:

        I hope through their experience in the streets, Jemmy and Prince Horace formed an inseparable bond and Prince Horace has learned how his actions may affect those less privileged than him and so to behave more responsibly.

  9. I love idioms. I had never heard the cutting off your own nose one! Goodness!!

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