Historical truths behind English sayings II


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You can read the first part to this series here.

According to one of those more educational DSTV adverts, the average person has a vocabulary of 10 000 words – 15 000 if you’re really smart. It also says that Shakespeare takes the cake with a vocab of 29 000 words. Exclamation!

The playwright was also the founder of a copious amount of English phrases and gives new meaning to what it means to become famous after you die. Quite ironic for a dramatist I thought.

On that note I thought I would do a little tribute post to the man we were all forced to study in High school. We may have hated him back then, but now we should appreciate his contribution to the English language.

So, at one fell swoop here are the origins of some of Shakespeare’s more commonly used phrases:

1. As dead as a doornailA dead looking doornail
My brother and I used to use this one quite a lot when we were young. I’m not entirely sure why, but I recall him using it adaptively to call me “as dumb as a doornail.” Anyway, the meaning behind this one is quite clear.

Doornails are the large-headed studs that were used in earlier times (14th century) to strengthen doors. Fitting doornails involved hammering them through and bending over the protruding bit. The ‘deadness’ refers to the un-usable-ness of inanimate objects, which is what the doornail became after a good hammering.

2. Fight fire with fire
Fire-break gone pear-shapedWe use this one today to refer to attacking someone with the same means that the attackers employ – giving them a “taste of their own medicine” to use another phrase. Shakespeare did use this phrase in King John, but it’s more modern origin actually has a more literal meaning.

It was coined by 19th century US settlers and referred to actual fire-fighting. The settlers would guard themselves against grass or forest fires by deliberately lighting smaller, controllable ‘back-fires’ – a practise still done today except we now call them ‘fire-breaks.’

However, the Settlers’ fire-breaks were often unsuccessful and actually made matters worse for them and their highly flammable houses. It is said that this is where the phrase “to backfire” (i.e. to unexpectedly go wrong) originates.

3. In a pickle
Pickled goodnessThe origin of “being in a pickle” (i.e. a tight spot) does seem to allude to being in the actual vinegary pickling liquid what we find gherkins in today. Supposedly it would be difficult to escape if you ever found yourself in a jar of gherkins.

However, the phrase does have a more literal sense, which goes back to England’s greatest naval hero Admiral Nelson – who was literally picked in a barrel of brandy after a musket ball took him out.

4. Tapping the Admiral
The above story makes reference to a related phrase I know of but am not sure whether it’s an urban myth or not.

Lord Admiral NelsonAlthough the majority of sailors who died at sea were simply thrown overboard, seamen of higher rank (such as the captain, his first mate and admirals) were preserved in barrels of brandy.

After several months at sea, several members of the crew would discreetly sip away at the brandy with the bodies in them, using tubes of pasta as straws – a saying that became known as “tapping the admiral.” When ships finally reached the shore the cargo crew would often find these barrel-coffins completely empty. Yummy.

5. Makes your hair stand on end
A Freaked out porcupineShakespeare’s phrases and writing conjured up vivid imagery in the minds of the now well-deceased English people, and continues to have a grand affect on our imaginations today. Some literary exerts posit that no image better illustrates the sensation of one’s hair standing on end than a fretful porcupine.

The phrase is rather literal however, and refers to the actual effect of one’s hair (especially on the back of the neck) standing on end due to the skin contracting as a result of cold or fear. Chilling.

6. Wear your heart on your sleeve
This one's for you baby!The meaning of wearing your heart on your sleeve is to display your emotions openly. You might remember this one from Shakespeare’s masterpiece Othello.

This rather strange phrase is said to derive from a middle-aged custom of knights wearing the colours of the lady they were supporting during jousting matches. They would wear a cloth or ribbon in the colour of their fair maiden around their arms before galloping towards impending pain or victory.

7. Wild goose chase
The first use of “a wild goose chase” is referenced in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1592) whereby Romeo is keen to embark on a somewhat hopeless quest. We all know how that one ended.

Wild geese flying formationThe literal meaning that we infer from the phase today remains the same, however, its origin is more commonly thought to derive from the fact that wild geese are rather difficult to catch.

Yet there is an earlier, more technical meaning behind this phrase which refers to horse racing rather than the hunting of wild geese. A ‘wild goose chase’ was a chase in which horses followed a lead horse at a set distance, mimicking wild geese flying in formation. This use of the phrase became popularised 10 years after Shakespeare kicked the bucket.

Although the respected man is now gone his name and this tribute post shall live on forever. You can read about the origins of some other popular English sayings in the first series of this post linked below.

Related posts:
Friday the 13th superstititions
Historical truths behind English saying I

4 responses to “Historical truths behind English sayings II

  1. Fascinating information! Hope that I can build ‘an absolute trust’ on these interpretations?

  2. You’re right to be weary and not believe everything that you read on the web – always be discerning 🙂

    However, I can assure you that whenever I get my information off the internet I always use more than one source. I also have a few friends in English departments who have read this and seem to have no objections.

  3. DAVID BULLIVANT

    I can’t speak for ‘dead as a doornail’ but if ‘dumb as a doornail’ is an origin of the former, then Shakespeare cannot be credited for it. The phrase ‘dumb as a doornail’ predates Shakespeare by at least 200 years. In Langdon’s ‘Piers Ploughman’, written in the 1370s, the character Intelligence when being chided by his wife, Lady Study, feels ‘as doumbe as a dore nail’.

  4. That’s awesome! Thanks so much for sharing David!

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