Origin of Words and Expressions

I am amazed at how often we use phrases as metaphors and while we know what the meaning is we don’t know the origin. I wonder if you are using these phrases correctly.

As a marketing guy I am naturally curious and am always looking for an angle so I did a little research some years ago and here are some of my favorites origins:

Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water
definition – lose a good opportunity as part of a bigger clear-out
Several centuries ago when hot running water was not available, and whole families bathed one after the other in a single tub in front of the fire, traditionally the man of the house bathed first followed by his wife, the children, and finally the baby, by which time the water was so dirty that an immersed infant could not be seen.

Baby in Bath

Photo by Tracy Woodward

Bated or baited breath
definition – anxious, expectant (expecting explanation, answer, etc)
The former spelling was the original version of the expression, but the term is now often mistakenly corrupted to the latter ‘baited’ in modern use, which wrongly suggests a different origin. Many people seem now to infer a meaning of the breath being metaphorically ‘baited’ (like a trap or a hook, waiting to catch something) instead of the original non-metaphorical original meaning, which simply described the breath being cut short, or stopped (as with a sharp intake of breath). The expression appears in Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice (as bated), which dates its origin as 16th century or earlier. The word bate is a shortened form of abate, both carrying the same meaning (to hold back, reduce, stop, etc), and first appeared in the 1300’s, prior to which the past tense forms were baten and abaten. (Ack J Vaughan)

Get Out of the Wrong Side of the Bed
definition – be in a bad mood
The origin is from ancient superstition which held it to be unlucky to touch the floor first with the left foot when getting out of bed. Earlier versions of the expression with the same meaning were: ‘You got out of bed the wrong way’, and ‘You got out of bed with the left leg foremost’ (which perhaps explains why today’s version, which trips off the tongue rather more easily, developed).

Bite the Bullet
definition – do or decide to do something very difficult
Before the development of anesthetics, wounded soldiers would be given a bullet to bite while being operated on, so as not to scream with pain.

Bite the Bullet

The Buck Stops Here
definition – denoting ultimate responsibility
American poker players of the nineteenth century would pass a piece of buckshot from player to player to signify whose responsibility to deal.

Bull markets and bear markets
definition – optimists are bulls and pessimists are bears (stock traders)
Bull markets refer to upward price trends and tactics; bears and bear markets refer to downward price trends and tactics – some say that the expressions relate to bull and bear fighting, a bloodsport in parts of Europe in past times, and the image of bulls goring with their horns in upward motion, whereas bears tend to swipe in a downward motion. This metaphor may certainly have helped to reinforce the expression, but is unlike to have been the origin. More probable is the derivation suggested by Brewer in 1870: that first, bears became synonymous with reducing prices, notably the practice of short selling, ie., selling shares yet not owned, in the expectation that the stock value would drop before settlement date, enabling the ‘bear’ speculator to profit from the difference. This terminology, Brewer suggests (referring to Dr Warton’s view on the origin) came from the prior expression, ‘selling the skin before you have caught the bear’. At some stage after the bear term was established, the bull, already having various associations with the bear in folklore and imagery, became the natural term to be paired with the bear to denote the opposite trend or activity, ie buying stock in expectation of a price rise. The bull and bear expressions have been in use since at least as far back as 1785; according to financial writer Don Luskin, reference and explanation of bull and bear meanings appears in the book Every Man His Own Broker, or, A Guide to Exchange Alley, by Thomas Mortimer. (Luskin says his 10th edition copy of the book was printed in 1785. Other references: David W. Olson, Jon Orwant, Chris Lott, and ‘The Wall Street Journal Guide to Understanding Money and Markets’ by Wurman, Siegel, and Morris, 1990.)

Pay Through the Nose
definition – reluctantly have to pay too much
From the 9th century house tax imposed on the Irish by the Danes, called the Nose Tax because anyone who avoided paying their ounce of gold had his nose slit.

Take a Rain Check
definition – postpone something
Many believe this derives from the modern English meaning of ‘check’ (ie ‘consider’, or ‘think about’), and so the expression is growing more to mean ‘I’ll think about it’, but the original meaning stems from its derivation, which was from the custom started in 19th century America for vouchers to be issued to paying baseball spectators in the event of rain, which they would use for admission to the rearranged game.

Rule of Thumb
definition – general rule
From an old English law which made it illegal for a man to beat his wife with anything thicker than the width of his thumb.

Thumbs Up

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Carolyne Kershaw says:

    Actually the rule of thumb has nothing to do with wife beating in England. I believe the thumb was used as a measure by medieval carpenters, the length of the thumb from ‘point’ to first joint being roughly a thumb. This was back in the days when an English yard was officially the distance between the King’s nose and the tip of his forefinger whith his arm stretched out, a distance which would change with every succession to the throne . . .

    1. Nicholas says:

      I’d agree with you Caroline. In France, their word for thumb (‘pouce’) is still used to mean an inch.

  2. M. Nugent says:

    Expression: “Goodnight, sleep tight”

    I received from a friend the origin of the above expression:

    “In Shakespear’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence the phrase….”goodnight, sleep tight.”

    I there anything truth to this?

  3. David M. Gibson says:

    Hello. As you can see, I have incorporated the expression “Just The Trick” into my primary e-mail address. Many people have asked me exactly what that expression means. To me, it has always meant “the perfect method” or “solution” for some task. I believe this is correct, but perhaps you could enlighten me further. Also, I would be extremely interested in knowing where, exactly, the expression originated.

    I would be most appreciative.

    Best wishes,

    David M. Gibson
    Richland, Georgia

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