Mazzuca: What’s a petard, anyways? A guide to some commonly used expressions
The other day, I heard a TV commentator say, “He was hoisted by his own petard.” While I’m familiar with the expression, I wondered how or where did this expression originate, and what’s a petard anyway?
One thing led to another, and what follows are commonly used expressions we hear and may even use without knowing how or why they came into being.
A cock-and-bull story is an unbelievable tale. The term dates back to the 17th century and originated in Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire, England. Coaches between London and Birmingham changed horses there, a town with two primary coaching inns — The Cock and The Bull.
The banter of the travelers from England’s two largest cities resulted in unbelievable stories. A cock-and-bull story is an exaggerated or fabricated story like those told in The Cock and The Bull.
To bite off more than he can chew dates back to the 1800s in America, where it was common practice to chew tobacco. People would offer a bite of their tobacco block, and some would greedily take a bite bigger than they would chew. People began to notice this and forewarned others not to “bite off more than you can chew.” When someone bites off more than he can chew, he has agreed to do more than he can manage.
The term hoist by your own petard means to fall foul of your own deceit or fall into your own trap. This term originated during medieval times when a military commander would send forward one of his engineers with a cast-iron container full of gunpowder, called a petard, to blow up a castle gate, obstacle or bridge. The fuses on these bombs were very unreliable, and sometimes the engineer would be killed when the petards exploded prematurely. The explosion would blow (or hoist) the engineer into the air.
A last-ditch attempt is a last-minute attempt or an attempt to do something at the final opportunity to do so. This term has its origins in a speech by King William III of England in the late 17th century. He called upon all Englishmen to “fight and die in the last ditch” to defend England.
A horse of a different color probably derives from a phrase coined by Shakespeare, who wrote “a horse of that color” (“Twelfth Night,” 2:3), meaning “the same matter,” rather than a different one. However, by the mid-1800s, the term was used to point out difference rather than likeness.
To throw down the gauntlet means to challenge. The term derives from the time of medieval knights, when a knight would offer a challenge by throwing down his gauntlet (a metal glove which formed part of his suit of armor). The other knight accepted the challenge by picking up the gauntlet. To take up the gauntlet means to accept a challenge.
The term raining cats and dogs comes from Victorian times when household pets slept on the eaves of houses. When it rained heavily, the water from the roof washed them off the eaves, and they came down with the torrent of water from the roofs of houses, making it appear as though the cats and dogs had fallen with the rain.
The phrase “the pot calling the kettle black” means that the person you are talking to is calling you something they are themselves. Years ago when pots and pans were generally black and kettles generally metallic and reflective, it was joked that the pot sees its black reflection in the kettle and thinks that the kettle is black.
Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.