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A long look at the origin of idioms

In the past, I have often written about the origin of English idioms. Those posts were based on my work on an explanatory and etymological dictionary of the phrases that ended up in my database, the foundation of a dictionary that will appear a few months from now. Idioms are a thankful subject: one needs no etymological algebra or linguistic preparation for suggesting the origin of phrases. And yet it may be useful to explain how a professional goes about studying idioms. Below, I will repeat a few things I have said in the past, but they will now be in one place.

Whenever I speak about idioms (and I am regularly invited to entertain various clubs that pay no honoraria but send me nice thank you letters), I receive the same two questions from the audience: What is the origin of the whole nine yards and of to go to hell in a handbasket? To be sure, nowadays, there is no need to ask a specialist: search for the phrase on the Internet, and many phrases will turn up in the omnivorous and ever-reliable Wikipedia and on two or three other websites devoted to such matters, to say nothing of all kinds of suspicious sources of information. This blog started on 1 March 2007, more than 15 years and 10 or so editors ago and has been appearing ever since with few gaps every Wednesday. At that time, I could afford the luxury of consulting my database and feeling that probably no one else possesses the knowledge I have acquired over the decades.

This is still partly true when it comes to the history of words (compare the series on soul, 16 March and 23 March 2022, and last week’s post on milk) but much less so in relation to idioms. Therefore, now, before putting pen to paper, as they used to say in the past, I first of all find out whether I can say anything that “is not one click away” from everybody who has a computer, according to the formula trodden to death. The whole nine yards is a case in point. I may have more citations in my database than some other sources but no solutions in addition to what has become common knowledge. The handbasket case fares no better. I am in general beginning to feel redundant every time I write something. Even the emails I receive are usually followed by three excellent answers to choose from (for example, Thank you very much! I’ll do it as soon as I can, and Don’t worry!). Artificial intelligence has beaten me to a pulp. Tired of all this, today, I’ll write something only about the history of exploring idioms in the English-speaking world, rather than about the idioms I have studied.

The Oxford Etymologist addressing a jubilant audience on the origin of idioms.
(Photo “Speaker’s Corner” © Colin Smith via Geograph, cc-by-sa/2.0)

First, let me repeat the general thesis I have often made in the past. Except for so-called familiar quotations from Greek and Roman authors and the Bible, our pre-Renaissance texts do not contain any puzzling idioms. Before roughly the sixteenth century, no one spent hours in a brown study (unless the walls of the room were painted brown), went wool-gathering (unless a search for pieces of wool was announced), or drew a red herring across an opponent’s path to hoodwink or blindside that person. Medieval poetry was rich in imagery, similes, word play, and brilliant puns, but not famous for metaphors or the figurative use of word groups. Old Icelandic was the only exception.

An ideal conveyance to hell.
(Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay, public domain)

Also, to repeat another observation I mentioned long ago, people differ greatly with regard to their knowledge of idioms. To be sure, the same holds for their mastery of individual words, but the size of one’s passive vocabulary depends largely on one’s culture: the more we read, the more words we remember, even though we never use the rarest of them in conversation, except when we choose to show off or “sound facetious.” But phrases, I think, are mainly learned from conversation. That is why cliches of all kinds “spread like wildfire.”  I have often tried my favorite idioms on my students and discovered that very few understood what to put a spoke in one’s wheel, let the cobbler stick to his last, and even keep your pecker up, with their different references in British and American English, mean (though everybody knew the word pecker and—men or women—felt totally unabashed by my question). Apparently, nowadays, in the American Midwest where I live, those idioms have disappeared from communication and shared the fate of antiquated and obsolete words: one can learn them only from books.

Many idioms are local. No one has ever used them outside a small community, and even in the regions in which they were once common, they may now be forgotten. Consequently, few people wonder about their origin (which does not mean that they are not worthy of attention). By contrast, all my eye and Betty Martin (an exclamation of disbelief) once attracted as much attention as the hapless nine yards do today. Yet its relatively recent popularity did not save it from oblivion. See my post for 23 November 2016, and don’t miss the comments. Very few students I interviewed had a clear idea about the word cobbler, and no one understood last (cobbler, stick to your last). Professor Wolfgang Mieder, one of our best specialists in the area of idioms, had the same experience. His German listeners did not know the exact meaning of Leisten, the German cognate of last. The English idiom and its German counterpart convey the same message.

Quite a few phrases have never been explained. Some time around 1800, sailors in the Royal Navy, when speaking of an officer of diminutive (!) stature, used the phrase King John’s man—four feet nothing. In 1920, a query about this enigmatic phrase appeared in the excellent periodical The Mariner’s Mirror, whose well-informed contributors knew their business inside out. Yet no one responded to the question about the meaning of those four feet. Perhaps once, but only once, I offered a solution to an enigmatic saying. In 1896, a correspondent to Notes and Queries asked the readers to explain the idiom It stands stiff and but’s a mountain. Apparently, the correspondent heard, not saw, it. I am sure the correct version is It stands stiff and butts a mountain, and the phrase has nothing to do with idioms. It is one of the numerous innocently sounding obscene riddles, well-known from oral tradition, mainly thanks to the work by the great American folklorist Archer Taylor (1890-1973). Perhaps many readers guessed what stands stiff and what it butts, and that is why the naive query was never answered.

Sticking to his last as a last resort.
(Image via Stockvault, public domain)

Some idioms are very much alive but contain forgotten words. Where is the lurch in which we are often left? It is probably located in Old France. Lourche ~ l’ourche designated a game resembling backgammon. It seems to have wandered to France from medieval Germany. German dialectal lurz werden still means “to fail in a game,” with reference to lurz “left.” And what is brunt in bear the brunt? In Middle English, brunt meant “attack, onset.” Its origin is unknown. Many words beginning with br-, including break, bray, and brag, refer to making a lot of noise and traveled from language to language. Brunt may have been one of the medieval military vocabulary whose popular (onomatopoeic?) root we’ll probably never discover, but it is curious that this obscure noun has survived in a set phrase.

Next week, I’ll continue a quick rundown on the state of the art, the art being the etymology of idioms.

Featured image by bruce mars on Unsplash, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Tamas Ferencz

    Interestingly, “cobbler, stick to your last” has a direct equivalent meaning the same in Hungarian, too (“varga, maradj a kaptafánál”). Perhaps it’s a direct translation from German, or an obscure Bible quote?

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