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Idioms and slang: two examples

Slang comes in two “installments”: as words and as phrases. There are thousands of both. Our dictionaries of slang are excellent, but they, quite wisely, do not devote too much space to etymology. I say “wisely,” because, as a rule, very little is known about the origin of this vocabulary. The authority of dictionaries is great, and the public never doubts that what is written there is correct. Later research often produces more reliable results, but a new edition of a major reference work cannot always be expected. To give a chance example: two recent and very full dictionaries of English slang—by Jonathon Green and Jonathan Lighter (the second one is unfinished; above, there are no typos in the spelling of the authors’ names!)—suggest that despite some uncertainty the phrase put the kibosh on is probably of Jewish origin. Careful reference books say about kibosh: “Origin unknown.” Perhaps so, though extra caution is not always a virtue (see the posts for 12 May 2010, 14 August 2013, and especially for 29 November 2017). In any case, one thing has now come to light: this phrase is not of Jewish origin!

In my database, I have a few expressions that may be of some interest to our readers. Let me pick up where I have just left off.

Worth a Jew’s eye “worth a great value.” About a century ago, the distinguished British philologist Anthony H. Mayhew (a specialist in Middle English and early Modern English, etymology, and regional speech; he was a close associate of Walter W. Skeat, James A. H. Murray, and Joseph Wright) overheard a merchant (!) saying to another merchant: “Ah, if I could only get that, it would be worth a Jew’s eye.” Mayhew did not indicate whether the speakers were Jews. This phrase was first recorded in written sources in 1593 (OED) and later enjoyed some popularity. All sources quote the suggestive pun from The Merchant of Venice II, 5: 43: “There will come a Christian by/ Will be worth a Jewess’ eye.”

Jessica and Shylock (by Maurycego Gottlieba via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Evidently, Shakespeare used a phrase well-understood at his time. The Merchant of Venice was first performed in 1605. E. Cobham Brewer, the author of the once immensely popular book Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, first published in 1870, was prone to offering all kinds of bizarre hypotheses with an air of authority. He wrote: “As a matter of serious philology, the word Jewess’ eye is simply a corruption of the Italian gióia (a jewel).” In those days, all philologists used the word corruption instead of our neutral and inoffensive alternation, but the implication was the same. Let us draw the curtain of charity over the phrase serious philology, as Mark Twain might have said, the more so as in the later editions the formulation changed.

In Notes and Queries, 11/2, 1910, p. 208, The Jewish Year-Book for 1899-1900 is quoted: “It is difficult to understand how the idea of things ‘as precious as a Jew’s eye’ arose, and three rather uninspiring explanations are offered. [The explanations are indeed uninspiring: “…due to the brilliance of that organ with most Jewesses. Their dealings in precious stones may have in some way suggested a simile between these and the Jew’s eyes. It has also been suggested that the expression…means ‘worth being looked at even by such a judge of values as Jew is,” p. 283.] As far as English is concerned, the phrase undoubtedly goes back to the Merchant of Venice.”

The reasonable idea seems to be that the phrase was popularized, rather than coined, by Shakespeare. However, the word undoubtedly in etymological discussions always makes me wince. Nor do I know where John C. Hotten (The Slang Dictionary…, 1874) and Robert Nares (A Glossary, or Collection of Words… in the Works of English Authors, 1888), both highly respectable authors, got the information that the reference is to the price persecuted Jews paid in the days of King John for the immunity from mutilation or death. The explanation looks reasonable, and all the sources I have consulted say approximately the same. However, various idioms have been ascribed to the rapacity of kings (one such is to pay through the nose; an untrustworthy explanation); therefore, a more precise reference would be welcome. I don’t doubt for a moment the veracity of the sources referring to the cruelty of King John, his predecessors, and successors. Yet that king ruled between 1199 and 1216. Some other kings who used to torture Jews in a similar way also lived in the Middle Ages. Why did the phrase turn up only at the end of the sixteenth century? The seemingly solid etymology seems to be at odds with chronology, as Murray was wont to say. Can the source of the idiom be some popular show of the Elizabethan days?

Now a later idiom, namely, to save one’s bacon “to escape injury or danger; to save one’s neck.”

The Procession of the Flitch of Bacon. (Image via the British Museum, Picryl)

Why bacon? The OED has no citations antedating 1654. Here is the most amusing explanation I have read: “I venture to suggest that this phrase has reference to the custom in Dunmow, in Essex, of giving a flitch of bacon to any married couple residing in the parish, who live in harmony for a year and a day. A man and his wife who stopped short when on the verge of a quarrel might be said to have ‘just saved their bacon’; and in course of time the phrase would be applied to anyone who barely escaped any loss or danger.” So much for marital bliss, but the Dunmow flitch is indeed a well-known phrase.

One again wonders whether the idiom is based on some tale or fable, in this case entailing a pig escaping danger. However, none has been found. Rather, the opposite situation is known: a pig fails to escape a wolf’s jaws. The French have the phrase sauver son lard, which means the same (“to save one’s bacon”). Even if the French idiom is a borrowing from the cant of the underworld, we still don’t know its origin. Émile Littré, the great French lexicographer, did not include the phrase in his dictionary, but later dictionaries feature it. Also, lard occurs in many French idioms in which it stands for “riches, property.” Littré says that manger le lard “to break the rules” [manger “to eat”] may have arisen from the charge brought against the persons guilty of eating bacon or other forbidden viands on fast days. Bacon (in French) was also applied to a section of an old top that was placed in the smaller of two rings as a forfeit by a player whose top, when spun, had remained within the boundary formed by the larger circle. It became the prize of the player who pegged it out of its small enclosure. The metaphor makes sense because a fat pig was a desired prize in many rural contests.

Here is something to bring home! (Image by E. Hacker via Wikimedia Commons)

In English, bacon also stands for “money.” Immediately recognizable are the phrases to have the bacon and to bring the bacon home. To pull someone’s bacon out of the fire “to save someone from danger” and the humorous expression a good voice to beg bacon “a hoarse voice” are rare. In any case, borrowing from French into English or from English into French would be hard to demonstrate here. But against the background of the material presented above, the idiom to save one’s bacon stops looking exotic.

If this kind of discussion presents interest to our readers, I may offer a few more slang phrases that deserve attention.

Feature image by Delete via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Jonathon GREEN

    Although the print edition of my dictionary appeared in 2010 it has been on line since 2016 and is updated every three months to reflect the researches and amendments I have achieved over that period. The next such update, #20, will be on 1 October, celebrating five years of the digital version.

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