Have you ever thought about the expressions people use on a daily basis and wonder how they became such an accepted part of the English language? I often stop and think – now where on earth did THAT come from?! I have had a quick Google to see if I can get to the bottom of some of them…
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
Meaning: Don’t throw valuable things out by mistake!
History: During the 1500s, most people bathed once a year – ugh! Even when they did bathe, the entire family used the same tub of water. 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 humiliation along with it.
History: 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’. So, if you were given ‘umble pie’ it was humiliating as it informed others in attendance of the guest’s lower status.
More than you can shake a stick at
I love the history of this one!
Meaning: Having more of something than you need.
History: 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’ and chaos ensued!
Given the cold shoulder
This is an interesting one, as its meaning has actually reversed!
Meaning: A rude way of telling someone they aren’t welcome.
History: Although giving someone the cold shoulder today is considered rude, it was actually regarded as a polite gesture in medieval England. After a feast, the host would let his guests know it was time to leave by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton, or pork.
Rule of thumb
Like so many old sayings, this is one with an awful origin.
Meaning: A common benchmark
History: Legend has it that 17th century English Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled it was permissible for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, given that the stick was no wider than his thumb. Must make sure this is a saying I avoid in future!
Meaning: Sleep well.
History: During Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. In order to make the bed firmer, one had to pull the ropes to tighten the mattress.