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Off topic: Origin of English sayings / expressions
Thread poster: NancyLynn

NancyLynn
Canada
Local time: 08:10
Member (2002)
French to English
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Jun 10, 2004

In the English monolingual pair, we often receive questions regarding the origin of certain sayings or expressions in English, some of which seem to make no sense at all.
Yet they each have their explanation in history. Check it out:

In George Washington's days, there were no cameras. One's
image was either sculpted or painted. Some paintings of George
Washington showed him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while
others showed both legs and both arms. Prices charged by painters were not
based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be
painted. Arms and legs are "limbs," therefore painting them would cost
the buyer more. Hence the expression. "Okay, but it'll cost you an arm and
a leg."


*************************************************************
As incredible as it sounds, men and women took baths only
twice a year! (May and October) Women kept their hair covered, while men
shaved their heads (because of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy
men could afford good wigs made from wool. The wigs couldn't be washed, so
to clean them they could carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the
shell, and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy,
hence the term "big wig." Today we often use the term "here comes the
Big Wig" because someone appears to be or is powerful and wealthy.


************************************************************
In the late 1700s, many houses consisted of a large room
with only one chair. Commonly, a long wide board was folded down from the
wall and used for dining. The "head of the household" always sat in the
chair while everyone else ate sitting on the floor. Once in a while, a guest
(who was almost always a man) would be invited to sit in this chair during a
meal.
To sit in the chair meant you were important and in
charge. Sitting in the chair, one was called the "chair man." Today in business
we use the expression or title "Chairman or Chairman of the Board,"


*************************************************************
Needless to say, personal hygiene left much room for
improvement. As a result, many women and men had developed acne scars
by adulthood. The women would spread bee's wax over their facial skin to
smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if
a woman began to stare at another woman's face she was told "mind your own
bee's wax."
Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the
term "crack a smile." Also, when they sat too close to the fire, the wax
would melt and therefore the expression "losing face."


************************************************************
Ladies wore corsets which would lace up in the front. A
tightly tied lace was worn by a proper and dignified lady as in
"straight laced."


************************************************************
Common entertainment included playing cards. However,
there was a tax levied when purchasing playing cards but only applicable to
the "ace of Spades."
To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards
instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, these people were
thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren't "playing with a full deck."


************************************************************
Early politicians required feedback from the public to
determine what was considered important to the people. Since there were
no telephones, TV's or radios, the politicians sent their assistants to
local taverns, pubs, and bars who were told to "go sip some ale" and listen to
people's conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were
dispatched at different times.
"You go sip here" and "You go sip there." The two words
"go sip" were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion and,
thus we have the term "gossip."


************************************************************
At local taverns, pubs, and bars, people drank from
pint-and quart-sized containers. A bar maid's job was to keep an eye on the
customers and keep the drinks coming. She had to pay close attention
and remember who was drinking in "pints" and who was drinking in "quarts,"
hence the term "minding your 'P's and Q's,"


************************************************************
One more: bet you didn't know this!!!!

In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many
freighters carried iron cannons. Those cannons fired round iron cannon
balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon, but how
to prevent them from rolling about the deck? The best storage method
devised was a square based pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four resting
on nine, which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could
be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one
problem...how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding or rolling from
under
the others. The solution was a metal plate called a "Monkey" with 16
round indentations. But, if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls
would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make
"Brass Monkeys."

Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and
much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature
dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the
iron cannon balls would come right off the monkey. Thus, it was quite
literally, "Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey". (And all this
time, you thought that was an improper expression, didn't you?)

Nancy


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NancyLynn
Canada
Local time: 08:10
Member (2002)
French to English
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Moderator of this forum
TOPIC STARTER
complete fabrications Jun 10, 2004

Hi again everyone,
It appears I have been boondoggled. Here is a mail I received moments after posting the above:

Hi Nancy,
As fun and interesting as these origins are, they are also
complete fabrications. A quick spin around Google or better
yet a good dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins or similar
will confirm. FYI.


So what are their origins? Anybody have that good dictionary? I'm curious now!

Nancy


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Narasimhan Raghavan  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:40
English to Tamil
+ ...
Here is one URL for what you were saying Jun 10, 2004

See: http://www.briggs13.fsnet.co.uk/idiomslist.htm
Examples:
Bacon: To bring home the bacon is to triumphantly achieve some plan or object, perhaps by winning a prize or race. There are two possible origins to this saying. The first goes back several hundred years to the village of Dunmow in Essex where, it is said, in AD 1111 a noble woman offered a prize of a side of bacon, known locally as a flitch, to any man from anywhere in England who could honestly say that he had had complete marital harmony for the preceding year and a day. In over 500 years there were only eight winners. The prize was re-established in the mid 19th century (1858) but ceased to be offered with the closure of the local bacon factory in the 1980s.
An alternative explanation comes from the ancient sport of catching a greased pig at country fairs. The winner kept the pig.

To save one's bacon indicates that a situation has been rescued. This has little to do with the bacon that was brought home above: rather the word here could derive from Baec which is Old Dutch and Anglo-Saxon for "back". However, like many sayings, there are other suggestions as to the origin. The most likely of these is that, in the early 17th century "bacon" was thieves' slang for "escape".

Lam: If you're on the lam, then you're reckoned to be 'on the run' (from the law). The Word Detective gives the following:
"'On the lam' has been popular American slang for 'on the run' since at least the latter part of the 19th century. The root of 'lam' is the Old Norse word 'lamja,' meaning 'to make lame', and the original meaning of 'lam,' when it first appeared in English back in the 16th century, was 'to beat soundly'. The English word 'lame' is from the same source, as is 'lambaste,' a double whammy in that the 'baste' part is from a Scandinavian root meaning 'thrash or flog'."
The change in the meaning of 'lam' from 'beat' to 'run away' probably echoed another slang term for running away - 'beat it.' To 'beat it' (or 'lam it') could well come from the sound of rapid foot beats on the road when running.

Large: At large is an expression used to indicate that a prisoner has escaped and is free. "Large" seems a funny word to be used in this sense but it goes back to a French phrase "prendre la large" meaning to stand out to sea so as to be free to move. "Large" also has another nautical meaning as in By and Large.

Lark: To lark about is to play around; to frolic; to go on a spree. Again the main word seems inappropriate until one realises that it comes from the Middle English laik, to play and the Old English lac, a contest. To Skylark is a modern extension

And so on.

Regards,
N.Raghavan


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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:10
Member (2000)
Russian to English
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A couple more, may also be fabricated Jun 10, 2004

POSH: In the 19th century, when taking a passage from England to India, the port side of the ship was cooler than the starboard side, which got the full force of the sun. When returning to England, the reverse was the case. Hence those who could afford it, when booking their cabins, would ask for "Port Out, Starboard Home" - POSH.

At the risk of offending the politically correct:
WOGS: Again in the 19th century, local Egyptian workers on the Suez Canal were known as Workers On Government Service, and wore overalls (coveralls) with the letters W.O.G.S. on the back, so they became known as WOGS (rather like the origin of GI - for Government Issue, stamped on all items of a US soldier's kit).


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Jabberwock  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 14:10
Member (2004)
English to Polish
About posh... Jun 10, 2004

http://www.m-w.com/help/faq/posh.htm

As fun as it is to trace origins of certain expressions, the oucome usually is quite dubious...


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Edwal Rospigliosi  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:10
Member (2004)
English to Spanish
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I already knew this one Jun 10, 2004

Jack Doughty wrote:
At the risk of offending the politically correct:
WOGS: Again in the 19th century, local Egyptian workers on the Suez Canal were known as Workers On Government Service, and wore overalls (coveralls) with the letters W.O.G.S. on the back, so they became known as WOGS (rather like the origin of GI - for Government Issue, stamped on all items of a US soldier's kit).


I read this explanation a long time ago, in the book "The Key to Rebecca", a WW2 espionage thriller. It seemed plausible then, and more plausible now.


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Parrot  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:10
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
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Losing face is probably older Jun 10, 2004

Although I wouldn't know how old. For one thing, it's not exclusive to English -- rather exists in more languages than three or four -- and seems to have been a common expression during the Crusades (it's idiomatic in Arabic). Maybe someone can enlighten us on this?

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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:10
Member (2000)
Russian to English
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Losing face in China Jun 11, 2004

An article was published in the American Anthropologist in 1944: "The Chinese Concepts of `Face'", by Hsien Chin Hu.

In the article, Hu examines the various meanings of a cultural concept that is widespread and especially notable among East Asian peoples. While delineating a concept of Chinese origin, she distinguishes the terms lien and mien-tzu, "...two sets of criteria by which prestige is gained and status secured or improved, and also how different attitudes can be reconciled within the framework of the same culture" (1944:45). Mien, the older term, refers to the relation between ego and society; it denotes the stature that is gained through personal success and achievement. It is a more secular, profane concept in that it is totally dependent on the external, worldly environment. Mien/face is closer to status currency rather than status itself.

Lien is the respect and worth that society conveys upon every member:

It is the respect of a group for a man with a good moral reputation: the man who will fulfill his obligations regardless of the hardships involved, who under all circumstances will show himself a decent human being. In this case, lien/face is a more sacred formulation in that it places the individual in the context of his society. It marks his position more formally; without it, he cannot function within the community because this face is both a social, external sanction and an internalized one (1944:45).

Loss of lien is therefore more serious and crippling than loss of mien. Lien is prized by all in a society; individuals have different standards regarding mien. Everyone has lien, whereas mien is gained and earned. As a result, there are a myriad number of methods of losing face for one's self or of losing face for others; different states of facelessness; and varying ways to gaining or maintain face.


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Sherey Gould  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:10
German to English
www.worldwidewords.org Jun 11, 2004

I've always enjoyed this site:

http://www.worldwidewords.org/

From the home page:
I’m Michael Quinion. The 1500+ pages archived on this site have been written by me over the past eight years. Several more are added virtually every week. Most are about English words and phrases—what they mean, where they came from, how they have evolved, and the ways in which people sometimes misuse them. A few others concern issues of grammar, style and punctuation.
My new book, Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths, is currently being serialised in the Daily Telegraph and is to be published in the UK by Penguin on 1 July. My previous book, Ologies and Isms: Word Beginnings and Endings, is still available from Oxford University Press.
A free newsletter is sent out by e-mail every Saturday to almost 20,000 subscribers worldwide. To get it, select the MAILING LIST link on any page. (That page also has a link to the back issues archive.)

The only problem in finding sites like this is that I tend to spend waaaaay too much time perusing them!!


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jgal  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:10
French to English
+ ...
I don't think you're entirely wrong, Nancy. Jun 11, 2004

The story about the brass monkeys is probably true, as I remember being tought about that in history lessons at school.

"Mind your Ps and Qs" however, was the one which made me realise the origins of the explanations were somewhat dubious. This is something which parents say to their children to mean "mind your manners" or "be polite".

It is actally a contraction for "mind your Pleases (Ps) and Thankyous (Qs)".


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DGK T-I  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:10
Member (2003)
Georgian to English
+ ...
I enjoyed the definition of "gossip" (plus more about 'brass monkeys") Jun 11, 2004

just like the British parlour game / television programme "Call My Bluff":-)

Collins says:

[ETYMOLOGY: Old English godsibb godparent, from god + sib; the term came to be applied to familiar friends, esp. a woman's female friends at the birth of a child, hence a person, esp. a woman, fond of light talk]

and applied to what they do, of course


http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq107.htm
contains a nice learned discussion of 'brass monkey' (and other nautical and naval monkeys too), touching on the Royal Navy, the Cunard Line and many other places - and their conclusion is......
well, go and see

Best wishes
Giuli~

(Eng Rus Geo)


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Katherine Zei  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 07:10
Italian to English
+ ...
Thanks NancyLynn!! Jun 11, 2004

NancyLynn wrote:

Hi again everyone,
It appears I have been boondoggled.
Nancy


They were great stories anyways!! And made perfectly good sense, whether true or not!

Now, do you have any idea of the origins for "boondoggled"??

Ciao!
katy


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Rusinterp  Identity Verified
Member (2003)
English to Russian
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Interesting Jun 11, 2004

Jack Doughty wrote:

POSH: In the 19th century, when taking a passage from England to India, the port side of the ship was cooler than the starboard side, which got the full force of the sun. When returning to England, the reverse was the case. Hence those who could afford it, when booking their cabins, would ask for "Port Out, Starboard Home" - POSH.

At the risk of offending the politically correct:
WOGS: Again in the 19th century, local Egyptian workers on the Suez Canal were known as Workers On Government Service, and wore overalls (coveralls) with the letters W.O.G.S. on the back, so they became known as WOGS (rather like the origin of GI - for Government Issue, stamped on all items of a US soldier's kit).


I heard about those, too, from an old Scottish friend of mine.


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Lorenzo Lilli  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:10
German to Italian
+ ...
Mind your p's and q's Jun 12, 2004

There are lots of different theories http://alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxmindyo.html

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