Intriguing stories of common phrases | Sunday Observer

Intriguing stories of common phrases

17 January, 2021

Have you ever taken a busman’s holiday or met the Famous Five? They are common phrases used in English. But each phrase has its own intriguing story behind it. It is an interesting hobby to trace the origins and meaning of everyday phrases.

If you have been ‘saved by the bell,’ you have come out of a difficult situation at the last moment. The phrase comes from boxing matches. A floored contestant can only be saved from being counted out by the ringing of the bell to mark the end of a round. Way back in the 17th century in England, a sentry at Windsor Castle was accused of being asleep on duty.

At his court martial, he defended himself by saying that he heard the clock of St. Paul’s in London, 30 miles away, strike 13 at midnight. Therefore, he said he could not have been asleep. The court, however, did not accept his defence and condemned him to death. Ironically, it was later found that the clock of St. Paul’s struck 13 times instead of 12 on that night. The sentry was saved by the bell and lived for 102 years.

If you see someone in a bad mood, you tell him, “You must have got up on the wrong side of bed.” The expression is based on an old superstition. It was thought that it was unlucky to get out of bed on the left-side because that is associated with the west which symbolises death. Although it has not been scientifically proved to be correct, we still use the expression.

Brass tacks

When you ask someone to get down to brass tacks, you want them to come to the essential details. The term originated in the United States in the late 19th century. There is a story about a customer who had made up his mind to buy some material in a drapery shop. The shopkeeper got down to brass tacks by measuring the material against the brass-headed nails along the counter. From that day, we use the expression.

When you visit a Government office to get something done, officers simply pass the buck to someone else. Harry S. Truman, President of the United States (1945-1953) is credited with the phrase. During his White House years, he used to say, “The buck stops here” pointing to his table. He always took the responsibility without passing the buck to someone else. It is interesting to know that “buck” originally meant a marker knife passed around the table in poker games.

I heard the phrase “a baker’s dozen” when I was 12 or 13. My English tutor explained it in detail. Unlike today, in the Middle Ages, bakers were subject to heavy fines if they sold underweight loaves of bread. To avoid prosecution, they gave an extra loaf of bread to anyone who bought 12 loaves. That means a baker’s dozen had 13 loaves. But modern bakers will not give you that extra loaf even if you buy 12 loaves.

Top dog

One day I met a man working in a company. He said he always wanted to be the top dog, the one in control. No doubt, he was an ambitious guy. Before the days of electric saw mills, all timber had to be cut by hand. Felled trees were placed over pits, and two men used a long saw to cut the timber. In the 1940s, I saw such a pit in a forest at Wellawaya. One man stood in the pit and got covered in sawdust. He was known as the “underdog.” The other man stood above the pit and was called the “top dog.”

One of the students always came to school with his uncle. One day he came with his mother. The English teacher asked him, “What happened to your uncle?” The student at once said, “He kicked the bucket yesterday.”

Everybody started laughing although it was no laughing matter. The student was following the rules strictly. We were prohibited to speak in Sinhala.

The bucket in the phrase does not refer to the vessel used for carrying water, but to the bucket beam or wooden frame on which pigs were hung after slaughter. Today if you say somebody has kicked the bucket, it means he has died.

During the infamous Yahapalana Government, the Mattala International Airport was referred to as a white elephant. The expression meant that the airport was a loss-making venture. However, it has become a busy airport today sought after by international flights. The phrase, however, refers to the kings of Siam who gave a white elephant to any courtier who annoyed them. Anyone who received a white elephant found it difficult to maintain it.

Get the sack

If you get the sack today, you are dismissed from your job. The origin of the expression is quite interesting. In the distant past, workmen used to carry the tools of their trade and belongings in a sack. They gave their sacks to the employer for safe-keeping. However, when an employee is dismissed, the sack was given back to him.

“My boss,” said one of my colleagues, “is a rather bad-tempered man. Yesterday I caught him in a good mood and asked him for a salary increase. I was surprised when he said, ‘You’ll get a promotion and a salary increase.’” My colleague struck the iron when it was hot. Iron when it is hot is more easily bent and moulded than when it is cold. It should be struck before it has had time to cool down. Hence “to strike while the iron is not” is to choose the right moment to act or to take advantage of a sudden opportunity.

A busman’s holiday is a form of recreation that involves doing the same thing that one does at work. The term is recorded from the late 19th century, when excursions by bus were a popular form of holiday. During the days of horse-drawn buses, some drivers became so attached to their horses that they made a point of seeing that they were being treated properly by going along as passengers on their own buses on their days off.

Pig in a poke

Never buy a pig in a poke. This is a warning to have a close look at what you are buying. In old markets, a young pig was often put on display while the trader offered his customers conveniently tied sacks ready for carrying away. When a customer who buys a pig in a poke (sack) opens it at home, he finds a cat in it,not a pig.

Now that I have retired from full-time work, I meet my friends once in a blue moon. That means I meet them very rarely. But why do we say “blue moon?” During the volcanic eruption on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa in 1883, the dust thrown into the atmosphere caused the moon to appear blue for some time.

A young teacher who was teaching English literature explained that pin money given by a husband to his wife was pocket money. Perhaps she did not know that pin money had its own history. After pins were invented in Europe near the end of the Middle Ages, they were considered a great luxury. Pin makers sold them only one or two days a year. Husbands used to give some money to their wives to buy a few pins. Later the money given to wives for their private spending came to be known as pin money.

Sometimes you may have come across the proverbial saying; “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Originated in the 17th century it means that a woman whose love has turned to hate is the most savage of creatures.

The “fury” may be either one of the avenging deities of classical mythology or more generally someone in a frenzied state. Euripides in “Medea” expresses the same sentiments: “In other circumstances, a woman is full of fear and shuns to confront force and iron; but when she has been wronged in a matter of sex, there is no heart more bloodthirsty.”

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