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The Origin of Some Everyday Sayings

Updated on October 26, 2011

The English language has many idioms and sayings that convey a meaning that may be quite clear to a native speaker but would baffle many non native speakers. Some have come down through the ages and are not relevant in today's world but are still used , for example, when saying goodnight to someone (usually within the family) then 'good night, sleep tight (and mind the bugs don't bite ) harks back to the time when ropes supported a straw mattress on a bed frame and if the bed ropes were not pulled tight the occupant or occupants rolled down into the saggy middle thus making it very uncomfortable, the bugs obviously referred to the bed bugs which lived in the straw. To add further discomfort to the sleeping arrangements cockroaches were partial to climbing into the bed and one method to deter them was to stand each bed leg in a container of liquid, usually urine! Small wonder then that the beds started off being high and gradually became lower as the legs rotted.

In Ireland a saying that conveyed a strong dislike of a place or a person and an unwillingness to go anywhere that place or person was 'I would not go within an ass's roar of that place/person' and anyone who had heard an ass's roar would know exactly what was meant - an ass's roar may be heard miles away and especially on a calm night. In another reference to the humble donkey, sometimes irreverently referred to as the jerusalem twostroke, if an item looked good but did not last long it was said to be 'as short and sweet as an ass's gallop! Scotland was,I believe, the home of the saying 'rule of thumb'. It was apparently lawful for a man to beat his wife with a stick provided that the stick was no thicker than the man's thumb. It is not recorded whether the woman was granted the same privilege but it would be very doubtful. The Celtic people still have great powers of description today for who else, when asked the time of day would ask if you meant old time, new time or God's time!

When we experience a period of warm sunny weather in September it is known as an Indian summer which does not refer to the summers in the subcontinent of India but to the First Nation people of Canada and North America who prayed for a spell of fine weather at that time to enable them to harvest the remaining crops before the onset of winter. A spell of very cold weather may be known as brass monkey weather, the popular belief being that it was cold enough to freeze the nether regions off a brass monkey, but it is in fact a naval term derived from warships when they were armed with cannon and cannon balls. The brass triangles that supported the stacks of cannon balls were called monkeys and would contract in very cold weather causing the balls to fall off.

The Bible is a very rich source of sayings. As old as Methuselah who the Bible would have us believe died over the age of 900 which would have to be disputed. One of my favourites is the story of Job's comforters who consoled this upright man in his tribulations by saying that they were caused by past transgressions! Everyone would at some stage have met a Job's comforter who left them feeling more disconsolate for their expressions of sympathy. A person who had difficulty in settling in one place and always moving on is sometimes said to be like a wandering Jew. This does not relate to the faith of the person but is derived from the diaspora when the tribes of Israel were scattered and wandering.

The Greek and Roman gods have contributed in no small way to the English language. We speak of martial arts i.e the art of warfare or fighting taken directly from Mars the god of war, bacchanalian feasts where the wine flows freely after Bacchus the god of wine and of a person being of a jovial nature after Jupiter the king of godds who was mainly concerned with wine festivals. In the latin language all nouns decline, that is the ending changes depending where the noun is in the structure of the sentence. The noun Jupiter is one of the four irregular nouns of the third declension and in the ablative case would be Jove. In latin the ablative would be used where the preposition by is used in English and even today some of the older men would use the expression'by Jove' when expressing surprise or agreement.

Language is by its very nature constantly changing and introducing new words and phrases especially with the rapid growth in modern technology but it is great to think that some of the sayings have stood the test of time. Our language would be poorer for their decline for they are part of our social history and in many cases a way of life tht has disappeared.


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    • mjfarns profile image

      mjfarns 6 years ago from Bloomington, Illinois USA

      I love hubs like this. Viva Linguistics!

    • rural exile profile image

      rural exile 6 years ago from Derbyshire

      Thank you for your kind comments. Glad to know that 'by Jove' is still in use. Happy to say that the bed legs now stand on carpet!

    • John MacNab profile image

      John MacNab 6 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

      Great hub, rural exile. In Scotland we used to place our bed legs in containers of paraffin to keep slaters and earwigs away. I still use the expression, 'by Jove' but then I am an old man.

    • FitnezzJim profile image

      FitnezzJim 6 years ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

      That was an entertaining read.