THE ORIGINS OF SOME OLD SAYINGS EXPLAINED

By Tim Lambert

Below is a list of old sayings and where they came from. However sometimes it is impossible to say for certain how an old saying originated. Sometimes we can only give the most likely explanation.

A

ACHILLES HEEL

In Greek mythology Thetis dipped her son Achilles in the mythical River Styx. Anyone who was immersed in the river became invulnerable. However Thetis held Achilles by his heel. Since her hand covered this part of his body the water did not touch it and so it remained vulnerable. Achilles was eventually killed when Paris of Troy fired an arrow at him and it hit his heel.

AM I MY BROTHERS KEEPER?

Like many old sayings in the English language this one come from the Bible. In Genesis Cain murdered his brother Abel. God asked Cain 'Where is your brother?'. Cain answered 'I don't know. Am I my brothers keeper?'.

APPLE OF MY EYE

This phrase also comes from the Bible. In Psalm 17:8 the writer asks God 'keep me as the apple of your eye'.

B

BAKERS DOZEN

A bakers dozen means thirteen. This old saying is said to come from the days when bakers were severely punished for baking underweight loaves. Some added a loaf to a batch of a dozen to be above suspicion.

BEAT ABOUT THE BUSH

When hunting birds some people would beat about the bush to drive them out into the open. Other people would than catch the birds. 'I won't beat about the bush' came to mean 'I will go straight to the point without any delay'.

ON YOUR BEAM ENDS

On a ship the beams are horizontal timbers that stretch across the ship and support the decks. If you are on your beam-ends your ship is leaning at a dangerous angle. In other words you are in a precarious situation.

BEE LINE

In the past people believed that bees flew in a straight line to their hive. So if you made a bee line for something you went straight for it.

BEYOND THE PALE

Originally a pale was an area under the authority of a certain official. In the 14th and 15th centuries the English king ruled Dublin and the surrounding area known as the pale. Anyone 'beyond the pale' was seen as savage and dangerous.

BIG WIG

In the 18th century when many men wore wigs, the most important men wore the biggest wigs. Hence today important people are called big wigs.

BITE THE BULLET

This old saying means to grin and bear a painful situation. It comes from the days before anesthetics. A soldier about to undergo an operation was given a bullet to bite.

THE BITER BEING BITTEN

In the 17th century a biter was a con man. 'Talk about the biter being bitten' was originally a phrase about a con man being beaten at his own game.

BITTER END

Anchor cable was wrapped around posts called bitts. The last piece of cable was called the bitter end. If you let out the cable to the bitter end there was nothing else you could do, you had reached the end of your resources.

THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND

In Matthew 15:14 Jesus criticized the Pharisees, the religious authorities of his day, saying 'they are blind leaders of the blind'.

BLUE-BLOOD

This means aristocratic. For centuries the Arabs occupied Spain but they were gradually forced out during the Middle Ages. The upper class in Spain had paler skin than most of the population as their ancestors had not inter-married with the Arabs. As they had pale skin the 'blue' blood running through their veins was more visible. (Of course all blood is red but it sometimes looks blue when running through veins). So blue-blooded came to mean upper class.

BOBBIES, PEELERS

Both these nicknames for policemen come from Sir Robert Peel who founded the first modern police force in 1829.

TO BOOT

If you get something to boot it means you get it extra. However it has nothing to do with boots you wear on your feet. It is a corruption of the old word bot, which meant profit or advantage.

BORN WITH A SILVER SPOON IN YOUR MOUTH

Once when a child was christened it was traditional for the godparents to give a silver spoon as a gift (if they could afford it!). However a child born in a rich family did not have to wait. He or she had it all from the start. They were 'born with a silver spoon in their mouth'.

A BROKEN REED

This phrase is from Isaiah 36: 6. When the Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem one of them stood outside the walls and asked if they hoped for help from Egypt. He described Egypt as a 'broken reed'.

C

CHAP

This word is derived from the old word Chapman that meant merchant or trader. It in turn was derived from ceapman. The old word ceap meant to sell.

CHOCK-A-BLOCK

When pulleys or blocks on sailing ship were pulled so tightly together that they could not be moved any closer together they were said to be chock-a-block.

COALS TO NEWCASTLE

Before railways were invented goods were often transported by water. Coal was transported by ship from Newcastle to London by sea. It was called sea coal. Taking coals to Newcastle was obviously a pointless exercise.

COCK A HOOP

This phrase comes from a primitive tap called a spile and shive. A shive was a wooden tube at the bottom of a barrel and a spile was a wooden bung. You removed the shive to let liquid flow out and replaced it to stop the flow. The spile was sometimes called a cock. If people were extremely happy and wanted to celebrate they took out the cock and put in on the hoop on the top of the barrel to let the drink flow out freely. So it was cock a hoop. So cock a hoop came to mean ecstatic.

COCK AND BULL STORY

This phrase was first recorded in the 17th century. It probably comes from an actual story about a cock and a bull that is now lost.

CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

This phrase comes from a play called The Birds by the Greek dramatist Aristophanes (c.448-385 BC). In the play the birds decide to build a utopian city called Cloud cuckoo land.

COPPER

The old word cop meant grab or capture so in the 19th century policemen were called coppers because they grabbed or caught criminals.

CROCODILE TEARS

These are an insincere display of grief or sadness. It comes from the old belief that a crocodile wept (insincerely!) if it killed and ate a man.

CUT AND RUN

In an emergency rather than haul up an anchor the sailors would cut the anchor cable then run with the wind.

D

WHAT THE DICKENS!

This old saying does not come from the writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870). It is much older than him! It has been around since at least the 16th century. Originally 'Dickens' was another name for the Devil.

DIFFERENT KETTLE OF FISH

In the past a kettle was not necessarily a device to boil water to make a cup of tea. A pot for boiling food (like fish) was also called a kettle. Unfortunately nobody really knows why we say 'a different kettle of fish'.

DON'T LOOK A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH

This old saying means don't examine a gift too closely! You can tell a horse’s age by looking at its teeth, which is why people 'looked a horse in the mouth'.

DOUBTING THOMAS

This phrase comes from John 20: 24-27. After his resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples. However one of them, named Thomas, was absent. When the others told him that Jesus was alive Thomas said he would not believe until he saw the marks on Jesus’ hands and the wound in his side caused by a Roman spear. Jesus appeared again and told Thomas ‘Stop doubting and believe!’

DOWN AT HEEL

If the heels of your shoes were worn down you had a shabby appearance.

DUTCH COURAGE

In the 17th century England and Holland were rivals. They fought wars in 1652-54, 1665-67 and 1672-74. It was said (very unfairly) that the Dutch had to drink alcohol to build up their courage. Other insulting phrases are Dutch treat (meaning you pay for yourself) and Double Dutch meaning gibberish.

DYED IN THE WOOL

Wool that was dyed before it was woven kept its color better than wool dyed after weaving of 'dyed in the piece'.

E

EARMARKED

This comes from the days when livestock had their ears marked so their owner could be easily identified.

EAT DRINK AND BE MERRY

This old saying is from Ecclesiastes 8:15 'a man has no better thing under the sun than to eat and to drink and be merry'.

ESCAPED BY THE SKIN OF YOUR TEETH

This phrase comes from the Bible, from Job 19:20.

F

FEET OF CLAY

If a person we admire has a fatal weakness we say they have feet of clay. This phrase comes from the Bible. King Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a statue. It had a head of gold, arms and chest of silver, belly and thighs of bronze and it legs were of iron. However its feet were made of a mixture of iron and clay. A rock hit the statue's feet and the whole statue was broken. The prophet Daniel interpreted the dream to be about a series of empires, all of which would eventually be destroyed. (Daniel 2:27-44).

FIDDLE WHILE ROME BURNS

There is a legend that when Rome burned in 64 AD Emperor Nero played the lyre (not the fiddle!). Historians are skeptical about the story.

FLASH IN THE PAN

Muskets had a priming pan, which was filled with gunpowder. When flint hit steel it ignited the powder in the pan, which in turn ignited the main charge of gunpowder and fired the musket ball. However sometimes the powder in the pan failed to light the main charge. In that case you had a flash in the pan.

FLY IN THE OINTMENT

This old saying comes from the Bible. In Ecclesiastes 10:1 the writer says that dead flies give perfume a bad smell (in old versions of the Bible the word for perfume is translated 'ointment').

FLYING COLORS

If a fleet won a clear victory the ships would sail back to port with their colors proudly flying from their masts.

FREELANCE

In the Middle Ages freelances were soldiers who fought for anyone who would hire them. They were literally free lances.

FROM THE HORSES'S MOUTH

You can tell a horse’s age by examining its teeth. A horse dealer may lie to you but you can always find out the truth 'from the horse’s mouth'.

G

GET THE SACK

This comes from the days when workmen carried their tools in sacks. If your employer gave you the sack it was time to collect your tools and go.

GILD THE LILY

This phrase is from King John by William Shakespeare. 'To gild refined gold, to paint the lily is wasteful and ridiculous excess'.

GO THE EXTRA MILE

By law a Roman soldier could force anybody to carry his equipment 1 mile. In Matthew 5:41 Jesus told his followers 'if somebody forces you to go 1 mile go 2 miles with him'.

GO TO POT

Any farm animal that had outlived its usefulness such as a hen that no longer laid eggs would literally go to pot. It was cooked and eaten.

GOLLY, GOSH

In the past it wasn't polite to use the exclamation 'God!' Instead people said Golly! or Gosh! Sometimes they said 'heck' instead of Hell.

GOODBYE

This is a contraction of the words God be with ye (you).

H

HAT TRICK

This comes from cricket. Once a bowler who took three wickets in successive deliveries was given a new hat by his club.

HIDING YOUR LIGHT UNDER A BUSHEL

A bushel was a container for measuring grain. In Matthew 15:15 Jesus said 'Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel but on a candlestick'.

HOBSONS CHOICE

This means to have no choice at all. In the 16th century and the early 17th century if you went on a journey you could hire a horse to take you from one town to another and travel using a relay of horses. (That was better than wearing out your own horse on a long journey over very poor roads). In the early 1600s Thomas Hobson was a man in Cambridge who hired out horses. However he would not let customers choose which horse they wanted to ride. Instead they had to ride whichever horse was nearest the stable entrance. So if you hired a horse from him you were given 'Hobson's choice'.

HOIST BY YOUR OWN PETARD

A petard was a type of Tudor bomb. It was a container of gunpowder with a fuse, which was placed against a wooden gate. Sometimes all things did not go to plan and the petard exploded prematurely blowing you into the air. You were hoist by your own petard.

HOLIER THAN THOU

This comes from the Bible, Isaiah 65:5, the Old Testament prophet berates people who say 'stand by thyself, come not near me for I am holier than thou'.

BY HOOK OR BY CROOK

This old saying probably comes from a Medieval law which stated that peasants could use branches of trees for fire wood if they could reach them with their shepherds crook or their billhook.

HUMBLE PIE

The expression to eat humble pie was once to eat umble pie. The umbles were the intestines or less appetizing parts of an animal and servants and other lower class people ate them. So if a deer was killed the rich ate venison and those of low status ate umble pie. In time it became corrupted to eat humble pie and came to mean to debase yourself or act with humility.

K

KICK THE BUCKET

When slaughtering a pig you tied its back legs to a wooden beam (in French buquet). As the animal died it kicked the buquet.

KNOW THE ROPES

On a sailing ship it was essential to know the ropes.

KNUCKLE UNDER

Once knuckle meant any joint, including the knee. To knuckle under meant to kneel in submission.

L

LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER

This is from Isaiah 53:7 'He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter'. Later this verse was applied to Jesus.

RESTING ON YOUR LAURELS, LOOK TO YOUR LAURELS

In the ancient world winning athletes and other heroes and distinguished people were given wreaths of laurel leaves. If you are resting on your laurels you are relying on your past achievements. If you need to look to your laurels it means you have competition.

A LEOPARD CANNOT CHANGE HIS SPOTS

This is another old saying from the Bible. This one comes from Jeremiah 13:23 'Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his spots?'.

LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG

This old saying is probably derived from the days when people who sold piglets in bags sometimes put a cat in the bag instead. If you let the cat out of the bag you exposed the trick.

LICK INTO SHAPE

In the Middle Ages people thought that bear cubs were born shapeless and their mother literally licked them into shape.

LILY LIVERED

Means cowardly. People once believed that your passions came from you liver. If you were lily livered your liver was white (because it did not contain any blood). So you were a coward.

A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME

This old saying comes from the Bible. In Ecclesiastes 10:20 the writer warns us not to curse the king or the rich even in private or a 'bird of the air' may report what you say.

LOCK, STOCK AND BARREL

This phrase comes because guns used to have 3 parts, the lock (the firing mechanism), the stock (the wooden butt of the gun) and the barrel.

A LONG SHOT

A long shot is an option with only a small chance of success. In the past guns were only accurate at short range. So a 'long shot' (fired over a long distance) only had a small chance of hitting its target.

LONG IN THE TOOTH

When a horse grows old its gums recede and if you examine its mouth it looks 'long in the tooth'.

M

MAD AS A HATTER

This phrase comes from the fact that in the 18th and 19th centuries hat makers treated hats with mercury. Inhaling mercury vapor could cause mental illness.

MAUDLIN

This is a corruption of Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who became a follower of Jesus. In paintings she was often shown weeping tears of repentance. So she became associated with sentimentality.

MOOT POINT

This comes from the Saxon word moot or mote, which meant a meeting to discuss things. A moot point was one that needed to be discussed or debated.

N

NAIL YOUR COLORS TO THE MAST

In battle a ship surrendered by lowering its flag. If you nailed your colors to the mast you had no intention of surrendering. You were totally loyal to your side.

NAMBY-PAMBY

This was originally a nickname for the poet Ambrose Philips (1674-1749) who was known for writing sentimental verse.

NICKNAME

This is a corruption of eke name. The old word eke meant alternative.

NO REST FOR THE WICKED

This phrase comes from the Bible. In Isaiah 57:21 the prophet says: 'there is no peace saith my God to the wicked'.

O

ON TENTERHOOKS

After it was woven wool was pounded in a mixture of clay and water to clean and thicken it. This was called fulling. Afterwards the wool was stretched on a frame called a tenter to dry. It was hung on tenterhooks. So if you were very tense, like stretched cloth, you were on tenterhooks.

P

PANDEMONIUM

This comes from John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost. In Hell the chief city is Pandemonium. In Greek Pandemonium means 'all the devils'.

PASTURES NEW

In 1637 John Milton wrote a poem called Lycidas, which includes the words 'Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new'.

PAY ON THE NAIL

In the Middle Ages 'nails' were flat-topped columns in markets. When a buyer and a seller agreed a deal money was placed on the nail for all to see.

PEARLS BEFORE SWINE

In Matthew 7:6 Jesus warned his followers not to give what is sacred to dogs and not to throw pearls (of wisdom) before swine (the ungodly).

PEEPING TOM

According to legend a man named Leofric taxed the people of Coventry heavily. His wife, lady Godiva, begged him not to. Leofric said he would end the tax if she rode through the streets of Coventry naked. So she did. Peeping Tom is a much later addition to the story. Everybody in Coventry was supposed to stay indoors with his or her shutters closed. However peeping Tom had a sneaky look at Godiva and was struck blind.

PEPPERCORN RENT

In the Middle Ages and Tudor Times rents were sometimes paid in peppercorns because pepper was so expensive. Peppercorns were actually used as a form of currency. They were given as bribes or as part of a bride's dowry.

A PIG IN A POKE

This is something bought without checking it first. A poke was a bag. If you bought a pig in a poke it might turn out the 'pig' was actually a puppy or a cat. (See Sold A Pup).

PIN MONEY

In the 16th and 17th century it was common to give your wife or daughter a small amount of money for for pins and other necessary things.

POT LUCK

In the past all kinds of food went into a big pot for cooking. If you sat down to a meal with a family you often had to take 'pot luck' and could never be quite sure what you would be served.

THE POWERS THAT BE

This comes from Romans 13:1 when Paul says 'the powers that be are ordained of God'.

PRIDE GOES BEFORE A FALL

This old saying comes from the Bible, from Proverbs 16:18 'Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall'.

PULL THE WOOL OVER MY EYES

In the 18th century it was the fashion to wear white, curly wigs. they were nick named wool possibly because they resembled a sheep's fleece.

PULL OUT ALL THE STOPS

This saying comes from church organs. Pulling out a stop lets air flow through a pipe and make a sound.

R

RACK AND RUIN

Rack has nothing to do with the torture instrument. It is a modification of 'wrack' which was an alternative way of saying 'wreck'.

READ THE RIOT ACT

Following a law of 1715 if a rowdy group of 12 or more people gathered, a magistrate would read an official statement ordering them to disperse. Anyone who did not, after one hour, could be arrested and punished.

RED HERRING

Poachers and other unsavory characters would drag a herring across the ground where they had just walked to throw dogs off their scent. (Herrings were made red by the process of curing).

RED TAPE

This phrase comes from the days when official documents were bound with red tape.

RED LETTER DAYS

In the Middle Ages saints days were marked in red in calendars. People did not work on some saint’s days or holy days. Our word holiday is derived from holy day.

RING TRUE, RING OF TRUTH

In the past coins were actually made of gold, silver or other metals. Their value depended on the amount of gold or silver they contained. Some people would make counterfeit coins by mixing gold or silver with a cheaper metal. However you could check if a coin was genuine by dropping it. If it was made of the proper metal it would 'ring true' of have the 'ring of truth'.

RUB SALT INTO A WOUND

This is derived from the days when salt was rubbed into wounds as an antiseptic.

RULE OF THUMB

This comes from the days when when craftsmen used their thumbs for making rough measurements.

S

SALT OF THE EARTH

Is another Biblical phrase. It comes from Matthew 5:13 when Jesus told his followers 'You are the salt of the Earth'.

SCAPEGOAT

In the Old Testament (Leviticus 16: 7-10) two goats were selected. One was sacrificed. The other was spared but the High Priest laid his hands on it and confessed the sins of his people. The goat was then driven into the wilderness. He was a symbolic 'scapegoat' for the people's sins.

SCOT FREE

This has nothing to do with Scotland. Scot is an old word for payment so if you went scot free you went without paying.

TO SEE A MAN ABOUT A DOG

This old saying first appeared in 1866 in a play by Dion Boucicault (1820-1890) called the Flying Scud in which a character makes the excuse that he is going 'to see a man about a dog' to get away.

SENT TO COVENTRY

The most likely explanation for this old saying is that during the English Civil War Royalists captured in the Midlands were sent to Coventry. They were held prisoner in St Johns Church and the local people shunned them and refused to speak to them.

SET YOUR TEETH ON EDGE

This is from Jeremiah 31:30 'Every man that eats the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge'.

SHAMBLES

Originally a shamble was a bench. Butchers used to set up benches to sell meat from. In time the street where meat was sold often became known as the Shambles. (This street name survives in many towns today). However because butchers used to throw offal into the street shambles came to mean a mess or something very untidy or disorganised.

SHIBBOLETH

This is a word used by members of a particular group. It identifies people as members of the group. It comes from the Old Testament Judges 12: 5-7. Two groups of Hebrews, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites fought each other. The Gileadites captured the fords over the River Jordan leading to Ephraim. If a man wanted to cross a ford they made him say 'Shibboleth' (a Hebrew word meaning ear of grain). The Ephraimites could not pronounce the word properly and said 'Sibboleth'. If anyone mispronounced the word the Gileadites knew he was an enemy and killed him.

SHORT SHRIFT

A shrift was a confession made to a priest. Criminals were allowed to make a short shrift before they were executed. so if you gave somebody short shrift you gave them a few minutes to confess their sins before carrying out the execution.

SHOW YOUR TRUE COLORS

Pirate ships would approach their intended victim showing a false flag to lure them into a false sense of security. When it was too late for the victim to escape they would show their true colors-the jolly roger!

SOLD A PUP

If you bought a piglet the seller placed it in a bag or sack. Sometimes, with his hands out of sight, the seller would slip a puppy into the sack. If you were swindled in that way you were sold a pup.

SPINNING A YARN

Rope was made in ports everywhere. The rope makers chatted while they worked. They told each other stories while they were spinning a yarn.

SPICK AND SPAN

Today this means neat and tidy but originally the saying was spick and span new. A span was a wood shaving. If something was newly built it would have tell-tale wood chips so it was 'span new'. Spick is an old word for a nail. New spicks or nails would be shiny. However words and phrases often change their meanings over centuries and spick and span came to mean neat and tidy.

SPINSTER

A Spinster is an unmarried woman. Originally a spinster was simply a woman who made her living by spinning wool on a spinning wheel. However it was so common for single women to support themselves that way that by the 18th century 'spinster' was a synonym for a middle-aged unmarried woman.

SPOIL THE SHIP FOR A HA'PENNY WORTH OF TAR

Originally 'ship' was sheep and the saying comes from the practice of covering cuts on sheep with tar.

A SQUARE MEAL

There is a popular myth that this saying comes from the time when British sailors ate of square plates. In reality the phrase began California in the mid-19th century and it simply meant a good meal for your money, as in the phrase 'fair and square'. Later the saying made its way to Britain.

START FROM SCRATCH

This phrase comes from the days when a line was scratched in the ground for a race. The racers would start from the scratch.

STRAIGHT LACED

This phrase was originally STRAIT laced. The old English word strait meant tight or narrow. In Tudor times buttons were mostly for decoration. Laces were used to hold clothes together. If a woman was STRAIT laced she was prim and proper.

THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW

This comes from Matthew 7:14. In the King James Bible published in 1611 Jesus says: 'Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth to life'. The old English word strait meant tight or narrow but when it went out of use the phrase changed to 'STRAIGHT and narrow'.

STRIKE WHILE THE IRON IS HOT

This phrase comes from the days when blacksmiths lifted iron objects from the furnace and hammered it. They could only hammer the object into shape while the iron was hot, before it cooled down.

SWAN SONG

This comes from an old belief that swans, who are usually silent, burst into beautiful song when they are dying.

SWASHBUCKLER

A buckle was a kind of small shield. Swash meant the noise caused by striking. Brash men struck their swords against their bucklers as they walked around town. So they became known as swashbucklers.

SWINGING THE LEAD

On board ships a lead weight was attached to a long rope. A knot was tied every six feet in the rope. The lead weight was swung then thrown overboard. When it sank to the seabed you counted the number of knots that disappeared and this told you how deep the sea was. Some sailors felt it was an easy job and 'swinging the lead' came to mean avoiding hard work. In time it came to mean feigning illness to avoid work.

T

TAKE SOMEBODY UNDER YOUR WING

In Luke 12:34 Jesus laments that he wished to gather the people of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings but Jerusalem was not willing.

TAKEN ABACK

If the wind suddenly changed direction a sailing ship stopped moving forward. It was 'taken aback', which was a bit of a shock for the sailors.

TAWDRY

This is a corruption of St Audrey because cheap jewelry was sold at St Audrey's fair in Ely, Cambridgeshire.

THORN IN MY SIDE

This comes from the Bible. In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul states that he was given a 'thorn in my flesh' to prevent him becoming proud. We are not told what the 'thorn' was, perhaps it was some form of illness.

THROUGH THICK AND THIN

This old saying was once 'through thicket and thin wood'. It meant making your way through a dense wood and through one where trees grew more thinly.

THROW DOWN THE GAUNTLET

In the Middle Ages a gauntlet was the glove in a suit of armor. Throwing down your gauntlet was a way of challenging somebody to a duel.

TONGUE IN CHEEK

In the 18th century sticking your tongue in your cheek was a sign of contempt. It is not clear how speaking with your tongue in your cheek took on its modern meaning.

TOUCH AND GO

This old saying probably comes from ships sailing in shallow waters where they might touch the seabed then go. If so, they were obviously in a dangerous and uncertain situation.

TOUCH WOOD

In Celtic time’s people believed that benevolent spirits lived in trees. When in trouble people knocked on the tree and asked the spirits for help.

HAVE NO TRUCK WITH

Truck originally meant barter and is derived from a French word 'troquer'. Originally if you had no truck with somebody you refused to trade with him or her. It came to mean you refused to have anything to do with them.

TRUE BLUE

This phrase was originally true as Coventry blue as the dyers in Coventry used a blue dye that lasted and did not wash out easily. However the phrase became shortened.

TURN THE OTHER CHEEK

Jesus told his followers not to retaliate against violence. In Luke 6:29 he told them that if somebody strikes you on one cheek turn the other cheek to him as well.

TURN OVER A NEW LEAF

This means to make a fresh start. It meant a leaf or page of a book.

TURNED THE CORNER

Ships that had sailed past the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn were said to have 'turned the corner'.

U

UP THE POLE

The pole was a mast of a ship. Climbing it was dangerous and, not surprisingly, you had to be a bit crazy to go up there willingly. So if you were a bit mad you were up the pole.

W

WARTS AND ALL

When Oliver Cromwell 1599-1658 had his portrait painted he ordered the artist not to flatter him. He insisted on being painted 'warts and all'.

WASH MY HANDS OF

The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, refused to be involved in the death of an innocent person (Jesus). So he washed his hands in front of the crowd, symbolically disassociating himself from the execution.

WEAR YOUR HEART ON YOUR SLEEVE

In the Middle Ages knights who fought at tournaments wore a token of their lady on their sleeves. Today if you make your feelings obvious to everybody you wear your heart on your sleeve.

WEASEL WORDS

This phrase is said to come from an old belief that weasels could suck out the inside of an egg leaving its shell intact.

WEIGH ANCHOR

The 'weigh' is a corruption of the old word wegan which meant carry or lift.

WENT WEST

Once criminals were hanged at Tyburn - west of London. So if you went west you went to be hanged.

WIDE BERTH

A berth is the place where a ship is tied up or anchored. When the anchor was lowered a ship would tend to move about on the anchor cable so it was important to give it a wide berth to avoid collisions. Today to give someone wide berth is to steer clear of them.

WILLY-NILLY

This phrase is believed to be derived from the old words will-ye, nill-ye (or will-he, nill- he) meaning whether you want to or not (or whether he wants to or not).

WIN HANDS DOWN

This old saying comes from horse racing. If a jockey was a long way ahead of his competitors and sure to win the race he could relax and put his hands down at his sides.

WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF

In the ancient world grain was hurled into the air using a tool called a winnowing fork. Wind separated the edible part of the grain (wheat) from the lighter, inedible part (chaff). In Matthew 3:12 John the Baptist warned that on the judgement day Jesus would separate the wheat from the chaff (good people from evil).

WHIPPING BOY

Prince Edward, later Edward VI, had a boy who was whipped in his place every time he was naughty.

WHITE ELEPHANT

In Siam (modern day Thailand) white or pale elephants were very valuable. The king sometimes gave white elephant to a person he disliked. It might seem a wonderful gift but it was actually a punishment because it cost so much to keep!

A WOLF IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING

In Matthew 7:15 Jesus warned his followers of false prophets saying they were like 'wolves in sheep's clothing' outwardly disarming.

My Youtube video about old sayings

The origin of English place names

The origin of English surnames

A history of England

A historical dictionary

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