Vail Daily column: Just sayin’
Have you ever wondered about the origin of old sayings or how they worked their way into the lexicon? Just for fun, I thought I’d take the time to examine a few sayings that are in common use today.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: Meaning — Hang on to valuable things when getting rid of unnecessary things. During the 1500s, most people bathed once a year. And when they did bathe, the entire family used the same tub of water (yuck!). The man of the house bathed first, followed by other males, then females, and finally the babies. You can imagine how thick and cloudy the water became by that time, so the infants’ mothers had to take care not to throw them out with the bathwater when they emptied the tub.
Eating humble pie: Meaning — Making an apology and suffering the humiliation along with it. During the Middle Ages, the lord of a manor would hold a feast after hunting. He would receive the finest cut of meat at the feast, but those of a lower standing were served a pie filled with the entrails and innards, known as “umbles” (double yuck!). Therefore, receiving “umble pie” was considered humiliating because it informed others in attendance of the guest’s lower status.
Go the whole nine yards: Meaning — To try one’s best. World War II fighter pilots received a nine-yard chain of ammunition. Therefore, when a pilot used all of his ammunition on one target, he gave it “the whole nine yards.”
Cat got your tongue? Meaning — When a person is at a loss for words. There are two possible sources for this saying. The first refers to the cat-o’-nine-tails — a whip used by the English Navy for flogging. The whip caused so much pain that the victims were left speechless. The second refers to the practice of cutting out the tongues of liars and blasphemers (oh to live in the Middle Ages) and feeding them to cats.
More than you can shake a stick at: Meaning — Having more of something than you need. Farmers controlled their sheep by shaking their staffs to indicate where the animals should go. When farmers had more sheep than they could control, it was said they had “more than you can shake a stick at.”
Pleased as Punch: Meaning — To be very happy. This one surprised me because I always thought the saying referred to a beverage served from a large bowl. But it’s origins date to a 17th century puppet show for children called “Punch and Judy.” The show featured a puppet named Punch, who always killed people (good grief!). The act of killing brought him pleasure, so he felt pleased with himself afterward. A children’s show? Really?
Rub the wrong way: Meaning — To irritate, bother or annoy someone. In colonial America, every week servants in a household would wet-rub and dry-rub the oak-board floors. Doing it against the grain caused streaks to form, making the wood look awful while irritating the homeowner.
Saved by the bell: Meaning — Rescued from an unwanted situation. Betcha thought this came from the vernacular of prize fighting. But it doesn’t; as scary as it sounds, many, many years ago being buried alive was once a common occurrence. People who feared succumbing to such a fate were buried in special coffins that connected to a bell above ground. At night, guards listened for any bells in case they had to dig up a living person and save them “by the bell.”
Waking up on the wrong side of the bed: Meaning — Waking up in a bad mood. I was 6 years old the first time I heard the expression and asked my mother, “What’s the right side of the bed?”
I don’t recall her answer, but in bygone years the left side of the body or anything having to do with the left was often considered sinister. To ward off evil, innkeepers made sure the left side of the bed was pushed against a wall, so guests had no other option but to get up on the right side of the bed.
Spill the beans: Meaning — To reveal a secret. Well before the creation of the Electoral College, beans were used to vote for candidates in Ancient Greece. One container for each candidate was set out before the group members, who would place a white bean in the container if they approved of the candidate and a black bean if they did not. Sometimes a clumsy voter would accidentally knock over the container, revealing all of the beans and allowing everyone to see the confidential votes.
Come Hell or High Water: Meaning — A great difficulty or obstacle. The derivation of this phrase isn’t well understood. Nor does it appear to allude to any particular thing or event. More likely than not, it’s simply an impressive-sounding alliterative phrase that refers to things that are obviously difficult to overcome.
It’s been said the richness of the English language is unparalleled; the foregoing were just a few examples — I hope you enjoyed them.
Quote of the day: “The richest man is not he who has the most, but he who needs the least” —Unknown.
Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.