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Idioms and petards

I’m never one to toe the line and I may be flogging a dead horse, but as you know I am fascinated by language, so in this post I am going to look at the real meaning behind some of our most commonly used idioms and expressions. I will leave no stone unturned to get to the derivations. It won’t be easy but I would be lily livered not to make the effort. I will try not to let the cat out of the bag in one fell swoop. If I succeed I will be on cloud nine, I hope I won’t be hoisted on my own petard if I don’t. So … to get down to brass tacks.

‘Toe the line’ – Apparently this derives from the lines drawn in front of the two sides of the British Houses of Parliament. The lines are drawn at just the right distance from each other to prevent opposing MPs from reaching each other with their swords (shame they don’t still use them!) Anyone stepping across was sternly instructed to ‘toe the line’.

‘Flogging a dead horse’ – Not a sad animal derivation after all, but a nautical derivation to do with the equatorial ‘Horse’ latitude where winds are very weak. Since sailors were paid by the day there was no point in working hard to get through the area quickly, so the slow mid ocean period became known as ‘flogging the dead Horse.’

‘Leave no stone unturned’ – After the Greeks defeated the Persians in 477 BC Polycrates was unable to find treasure he was sure they had left behind. Eventually he consulted the Oracle at Delphi which suggested he ‘move every stone’ in his search. Sure enough he soon found the booty. At 2500 years old this may be one of our oldest idioms.

‘Lily livered’ – Greek again – When sacrificing an animal on the eve of battle, it was considered a bad omen if the poor animal’s liver was pale and ‘lily’ coloured, suggesting the battle would not be fought with red blooded, courageous ferocity.

‘To let the cat out of the bag’ – Live suckling pigs were sold in sacks in medieval markets. When the unsuspecting buyer arrived home and opened his ‘bag’ he would sometimes find a cat had been surreptitiously substituted.

‘One fell swoop’ – Our old friend Shakespeare got this falconry image going – Macduff (in Macbeth) bemoans the death of his wife and children ‘What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop’.

‘Cloud nine’ – In the 1930s the American Weather Bureau categorised clouds into classes 1-9. Cloud 9, cumulonimbus, is the highest at 40,000ft. In the Johny Dollar radio show, when the hero (Johny) was knocked out he was then transported to Cloud 9 where he was revitalised (and presumably filled with glee) ready for the next episode.

‘Hoisted on one’s own petard’ – A medieval petard was a big iron container filled with gunpowder. It was generally placed against the enemy’s gates and blown up. The wicks, however, were unreliable and the container often blew up prematurely ‘hoisting’ the unfortunate attackers up into the air on their own ‘petard’.

‘Brass tacks’ – Derives from Cockney rhyming slang where ‘brass tacks’ are traditionally substituted for ‘facts’.

Ah, I promised myself 600 words max so I have been saved by the bell …! (- Not from boxing terminology as I’d always assumed, but from the army. One night in the Victorian era a Horseguard sentry was accused of being asleep on duty. The punishment being death, he denied it and said he could prove it because he had heard Big Ben strike thirteen times at midnight. The clock was checked and a faulty cog had indeed caused it to make an extra strike. On this evidence the lucky soldier was famously freed.)

(You can find many more idioms and their derivations in Albert Jack’s brilliant book Red Herrings and White Elephants.)

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One thought on “Idioms and petards

  1. This is great – I loved the book by Albert Jack and refer to it often, but you have rekindled my interest and I’m off to fetch it – like greased lightning perchance?!!

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