As everybody knows, the phrase in the title, l’esprit d’escalier, refers to a good thought occurring too late. Now that my explanatory and etymological dictionary of English idioms has been published, I keep looking it through and often regret missed opportunities. Why didn’t I search for such and such phrase on the Internet? If I had done so, I would have added a nice explanation or two. But I’ll let my prospective reviewers upbraid me and today will only write about a few curiosities in the corpus.
In 1888, the regional phrase to join giblets was known (perhaps it still is). I am writing this blog post during the Thanksgiving week, and turkeys (giblets and all) occupy a prominent place in newspapers. The explanation I ran into sounds so: “The phrase denotes a close partnership in Yorkshire but has an offensive meaning in Lincolnshire.” The oldest meaning of the phrase was “to marry,” and the OED uncovered a 1681 citation of the odd idiom. I assume that “the offensive meaning” is “to have sex,” the giblets being a euphemism for the genitals. The next idiom—join you flats! “do your business properly”—is more innocent, and, if I am not mistaken, it cannot be found in the OED. Flats are the halves as are formed by two equal parts pushed from the sides of the stage and meeting in the center. The phrase seems to go back to an incident in the Old Vic, when the back scenes would not meet and somebody shouted from the gallery: “We don’t expect no grammar, but you might let the scene meet,” quoted from James Robinson Planché’s Recollections and Reflections (1872), I: 127. A century ago, some people understood this phrase.
All of us realize that that the OED is huge, while everybody’s mastery of the vocabulary is poor, but it is still surprising how some seemingly popular phrases fall into disuse. I have once written about this phenomenon. No one whom I have “polled” recognized the idiom let George do it, that is, “let somebody else do it,” though I knew someone called George who had a repair shop and called it accordingly. He meant himself and apparently expected to be understood, but was he? Decades ago, I was warned that the phrase keep your pecker up is fairly innocent in England (pecker “nose”) and obscene in America. Again, no one I asked in Minnesota (where I live) knew the phrase, though everybody understood the reference to pecker.
Since my database depends on the notes by contributors to the popular press for roughly three centuries, it could be expected that many old idioms would be incomprehensible today, but it turned out that even some fairly modern phrases make no sense to us. For instance, butter out of a dog’s mouth, which means “you can’t retrieve what you have lost.” I admire another brilliant phrase that seems to have been coined by some wit, though its author has not been discovered. The phrase is new terror to death, which means “a posthumous biography published soon after the person’s death and vilifying him.” Swift knew it as early as 1703, and one shudders at its eternal aptness. De mortuis aut bene aut nihil? Alas, the Roman injunction not to speak ill of the dead has always been wishful thinking.
Sometimes the commentary of a century or so ago sounds surprising to us. What could be wrong with the phrase to return thanks? But read the exchange in Notes and Queries for 1902: “One of the oddest and most out-of-place phrases is that of ‘returning thanks’ which appears in tradesmen’s business announcements and notices. It is understood to be the tradesman’s way of thanking his customers for their past favours. Giving thanks would, perhaps, be better, for his customers would scarcely thank him for allowing them to deal with him.” However, this statement was rebuffed by another correspondent: “A return may be made that is not a return in kind; and I hold that a customer has often as much occasion to thank the tradesman for his attention he has given to his wants as the tradesman has to thank the customers for his patronage.” Other than that, the OED cites the phrase to return thanks from the end of the sixteenth century! Old as the hills, right?
Some “locutions” are mysterious despite the many attempts to explain them (including today on the Internet). Such is, for example, “Tace is Latin for a candle,” known from books, according to the OED, since at least 1605. Swift, Fielding, and other good authors used the phrase in their writings. Did they understand its hidden (or implied?) meaning, and did they know its origin? Amassing quotations will not explain anything, because tace is Latin for “be silent!” (the imperative of tacēre), rather than “candle”! It has been suggested that the mysterious phrase has its roots in some rites of the Catholic church. If a candle is thrown, it will be extinguished, and darkness (“silence”) will be the result. Or a guttering candle might be an image of a dying man. Those suggestions are not quite improbable. The OED refers only to a humorously veiled hint to anyone to keep silent about something. True enough, and the use of the phrase by Swift reinforces the idea of humor, but still, what does the phrase mean? On the surface, it is absolutely meaningless.
Sometimes modern usage seems to confirm a questionable etymology. Under the weather may go back to the phrase under the wind, that is, “protected from the wind” (though I can detect no logic here!), but more important is the suggestions that the phrase originated in American English. The suggestion seems to be correct. Like any other instructor, I constantly receive letters from my students informing me that they are indisposed and will have to miss the class. It most cases, they say that they are under the weather. If this nautical (?) phrase was coined in America, it may explain why it is so popular there.
The stray notes above have only one aim. I wanted to remind our readers that the history of idioms is as complicated and as worthy of attention as the origin and fortunes of individual words. Specialists have no doubts on this point. There is a European society for the study of idioms, and there are linguistic journals devoted to this subject. People have been collecting proverbs and curious phrases for centuries. Erasmus was keenly interested in the subject, but for language lovers idioms are an inexhaustible source of curiosity and pleasure. If you ask me about idioms (and I hope you will), I’ll answer: “That’s just the cheese!” My phrase has, most probably, an Anglo-Indian origin, but why the real thing is called “cheese” is something no one knows for sure. (However, as one of my colleagues used to say on similar occasions, there has been a lot of research on this subject). Stay turned!
Featured image by MrsEllacott, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)