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Pulling the whole length of one's leg - The Oxford Etymologist

Pulling the whole length of one’s leg

Our most recent discussion, two weeks ago, concerned the word toe. I would like to go all the way up to the hip and show that the entire area is (at best) a mildly promising etymological morass. We’ll begin with the title of this post. Today, most English speakers will recognize the idiom: to pull one’s leg means “to deceive playfully, to tease.” Though the phrase looks old, no pre-1821 record of it has been found. Some people apparently knew it in India in the 1850s, but in England, even in 1913, the correspondents to Notes and Queries believed that this somewhat impolite idiom was recent. Its origin has not been discovered.

In my forthcoming dictionary of English idioms, I usually stay away from guesswork, but in a blog, vague conjectures may not do anyone any harm. As we know, in Victorian England, the word leg was unpronounceable, so much so that one avoided mentioning even the legs of a piano: limb was the genteel substitute for it. Leg, so indecent, so vulgar! We don’t always recognize the true meaning of the popular tales dealing with this limb. Cinderella was discovered in her obscurity, because her foot matched the shoe. Well, the foot is part of the leg, isn’t it? Naturally, the prince was interested in his prospective wife’s legs. Likewise, Skathi, one of the giantesses of Old Norse mythology, was allowed to choose a husband among the gods, but they stipulated that she might see them only below the waist—again a wise provision for a bridal quest. She admired a pair of beautiful legs but made an almost fatal mistake: the legs belonged to a god who turned out to be a wrong match for her. This is an old myth, but it sounds like an echo of a humorous or aetiological folk tale, the more so as the two later separated, an unusual situation in folklore (the newlyweds are supposed to live happily ever after).

The fact that the idiom was known in India may suggest that it is a facetious rephrasing of some sentence in Hindi, as probably happened to that’s the cheese (see the post for 24 December 2014), even though, to repeat, it occurred as early as 1821 in a text by a British author. Another, more probable, scenario is that pull one’s leg began its life as slang or even thieves’ cant. If so, our chances of discovering the origin of the phrase are vanishingly small.

Pulling his leg.
(Photo by Carine06 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Now back to etymology. We’ll begin with the word leg itself. It is almost unbelievable that such an important word is a borrowing. Yet it is a loan from Scandinavian. The Old English word for “leg” was sceanca, still known in the form shank, which today denotes only the part from the knee to the ankle. This noun is also preserved in such family names as Cruikshank. German Schenkel “thin bone” is related. Apparently, the word’s root meant “distorted, lame,” as opposed to the root of shin, which may have meant “a straight stick” or something like it and be ultimately related to a verb for cutting. Shindy, earlier shinty “spree, great commotion” and “a game resembling hockey” seems to go back to the cries used in the games “shin ye, shin t’ye.” Amusingly, German Schinken “ham” has the same root, but English ham also means “bend of the knee” (hence hamstring “tendon at the back of the knee”; when it is cut, one is hamstrung), “thigh of a hog used for food,” and the universally known food word ham. (The origin of German Bein “leg,” related to English bone, is shrouded in almost impenetrable mystery.)

George Cruikshank (1792-1878), the world-famous illustrator of Dickens’s novels.
(National Portrait Gallery collection, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)

The previous exposition mentioned thigh and leg. Though leg is of obscure origin,it is certainly related to the Scandinavian word for “thigh.” All the rest is doubtful, and equally doubtful is the origin of thigh (perhaps the word referred to the “thick” part of the extremity). The uncertainty attending the etymology of all such words need not surprise us: the division of the body into separate parts is to a certain extent arbitrary, as shown by the worn to death reference to the fact that not all languages recognize the difference between “arm/hand” and “leg/foot” (see the old posts on breast, bosom, etc. for 13 April, 20 April 2016). It is also characteristic that none of the words discussed briefly above (leg, shank, thigh, shin) has direct cognates outside Germanic and sometimes even outside West Germanic. The same holds for body (compare it with Latin corpus! German did borrow the Latin word; hence Körper; with regard to body see the post for 14 October 2015). If you look up the old discussion of eye and ear in this blog, you will realize that both words, even though they are not confined to Germanic, have a history full of unexplained details. All over the place, we are dealing with individual coinages. Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin words for “leg” and the rest are quite different.

The lower extremity is “a bodily organ of support and locomotion” or “a limb of an animal used especially for supporting the body and for walking.” Such are the admirable definitions of leg in our dictionaries, and, apparently, leg might be named for any of those characteristics or metaphorically (a stick, a column, a support, something straight, and so forth). Associations and transfers of names in this sphere are often unpredictable and puzzling. For example, the Slavic word for “leg” (and “foot”—one word for both! Russian noga, etc.) is related to English nail and German Nagel. The reference must have been to an object resembling a claw or a talon, and, if so, at one time, the word referred only to the foot. Such a change of focus is possible. For instance, the Slavic word for “finger” originally seems to have designated the toe.

This is a leg of mutton sleeve, and this is a real leg of mutton.
(L: by David Ring, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain; R: by Jan in Bergen, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Occasionally, as long as we remain in the shelter of the leg, some cognates outside Germanic do show up. For example, ankle (with its typical diminutive suffix l) has a related form in Sanskrit. Latin angulus “angle” may belong here too. By the way, English ankle is also a borrowing from Scandinavian, though a similar native noun (a compound) existed; its second syllable resembled the word for “claw.” English seems to stand rather firmly on Scandinavian legs. But of course, the greatest (and the only!) example of Indo-European connections in this area is foot. We expect that non-Germanic forms will begin with p (as in father ~ pater) by the First Consonant Shift, and so they do. Here, related forms are all over the place: Latin pes, pedis (as in pedal, pedestrian, pedicure, pedigree, and others), Greek poús (the root is pod-; hence podagra “gout” and podiatrist), as well as numerous related forms elsewhere. Old English also had fæt “step,” still discernible in fetters and fetlock. If the ancient root was pod-, it must have been sound-imitative. One walked pod-pod-pod five thousand years ago, just as we walk pad-pad-pad.  English path seems to be close by. Is hip connected with the verb hop? Some people think so, but who has seen people hopping on hips?

Journalists like to finish their pieces with a pun. Do you think that the etymology, with its constant prevarication and verdicts “origin unknown/uncertain/doubtful,” has no leg to stand on? If so, relent. A good deal has been discovered, and the fact that few conclusions are final only shows that etymology is a serious branch of scholarship, rather than legerdemain, that is, a sleight of hands, but hand is a special subject.

Featured image by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    “English ankle is also a borrowing from Scandinavian,”

    Likely wrong if we go back far enough! English “ankle” most likely derives from ancient Greek “αστραγαλο” (ankle). The “γ” here is pronounced as “nk”. And dropping the first part “αστρ-” we get “ankle”. This often happens going from polysyllabic Greek to mono/bi syllabic English!

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