Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 2,814 other followers

  • IDIOMATION BOOK 1 on Amazon!

    Available in traditional book form as well as in eBook format, this is the first in the series by the author of the Idiomation blog on Wordpress.

    swirl

    BUY NOW BY CLICKING HERE!

    SIGN UP FOR OUR EMAIL NEWSLETTER


    ForEmail Marketing you can trust

  • May 2010
    S M T W T F S
    « Apr   Jun »
     1
    2345678
    9101112131415
    16171819202122
    23242526272829
    3031  

Archive for May, 2010

Neither A Borrower Nor A Lender Be

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 31, 2010

Surely with Biblical passages that reference lending and borrowing, the Bible must be the origin of this phrase.

Ex. 22:25  “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.”

Deut. 23:19  “You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.” 

Luke 6:34 “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” 

Oddly enough, however, the Bible is not the origin of this phrase.  It is actually an original phrase written by none other than William Shakespeare in his play Hamlet in Act 1, scene 3 and is spoken by Polonius.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edges of husbandry.”

When Shakespeare’s play was staged around 1600, history shows that borrowing was epidemic among the gentry.  This epidemic resulted in more than a few cases of landowners selling off their estates piece by piece to maintain their ostentatious lifestyles in London.

Wisely enough, those with money to spare had that money because they knew better than to borrow money against their assets and they knew better t han to loan money to others.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Saved By The Bell

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 28, 2010

There are those who will tell you in dead earnest that “saved by the bell” originated sometime during the 15th Century during the Renaissance era.  They are, of course, mistaken but it is a mistake that seems to have established a life of its own and is rarely questioned, even by knowledgeable individuals.

The claim is that back in the day, people were pronounced dead before their time and interred only to be dug up at a later date.  Once unearthed, scratch marks on the inside of the coffin were noticed in some of the coffins which, of course, instilled fear in the living that they, too, might be mistakenly buried alive.  While the fear persisted, there was no way devised at that time to alert people to anyone living being buried alive.

In fact, well into the 18th Century, famous people were still concerned with the possibility of being buried alive.

“All I desire for my own burial is not to be buried alive.” – Lord Chesterfield (1694 – 1773)   

“Have me decently buried, but do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead.” – George Washington (1732 – 1799)

With all the fear around the subject, plans for safety coffins began to show up in patent offices around the world.  One such safety box was referred to “The Improved Burial Case” by Franz Vester of  Newark, New Jersey on August 25, 1868.  Unfortunately, coffins hold very little air and the average otherwise healthy  person would pass out within an hour or two once a coffin was sealed.   Even if the individual could alert the world above him or her that he or she was living, unearthing the coffin in time is nearly impossible even using today’s technology.

Instead, the facts prove out that the practice of being “saved by the bell” comes from the sport of boxing.   In fact, this option was a mandatory option under the Marquess of Queensberry rules ,which were introduced in England in 1867.

The phrase appeared in print shortly thereafter and was soon used as a figurative expression for being saved, as from an unpleasant occurrence, by a timely interruption.

Martin Flaherty defeated Bobby Burns in 32 rounds by a complete knockout. Half a dozen times Flaherty was saved by the bell in the earlier rounds.” – The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel, February 1893

Floored in the first session by a terrific right to the jaw, the bell saving the Jersey boy at the count of seven.”—Ring magazine, November 1932

Saved by the bell, a boxer saved from being counted out because the end of the round is signalled.”—Boxing Dictionary by F. C. Avis, 1954
 
If, in future, the bell interrupts a count, the count will continue until the boxer is counted out—unless he gets up in the meantime  . . .  The expression ‘saved by the bell ‘ will, therefore, become an anachronism.” — Times, 18 May 1963

So the match goes to this phrase being a boxing term and not at all related to safety coffins or the Renaissance era.

Posted in Boxing, Sports | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Vanish Into Thin Air

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 27, 2010

While it’s true that William Shakespeare used the phrase “Go; vanish into air; away!” in his play Othello in 1604 and “These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air” in The Tempest in 1610, the exact phrase “vanish into thin air” is found in The Edinburgh Advertiser of April 1822, in a piece about the then imminent conflict between Russia and Turkey:

The latest communications make these visions vanish into thin air.”

So while there may have been others before April 1822 who used the phrase “vanish into thin air” in their works, any references I could track down have vanished into thin air, making it impossible to confirm their existence.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dead As A Doornail

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 26, 2010

The phrase “dead as a doornail” is an odd sort of phrase.  After all, one would scarcely think of a doornail as being alive so referring to it as being dead is equally amusing.  However, the term has nothing to do with whether a nail is a living, breathing entity.  When a nail is hammered into a piece of wood and the end is flattened so the nail cannot be removed, the nail is said to be dead since it can’t be removed and reused.

The earliest known version of this phrase is found in the English poem “William of Palerne” written by William Langland some time between 1335 and 1361, as commissioned by Humphrey de Bohun, 6th Earl of Hereford. The poem was a translation of the poem “Guillaume de Palerne” written in 1200, by William of Palerne as commissioned by Countess Yolande, daughter of Baldwin IV, Count of Flanders by William of Palerne.  In the English version, the following line is found:

“For but ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenail.”

Of course, William Shakespeare being the prolific writer he was found a place for the phrase in his play of 1592, “Henry VI” in Part II, Act IV, Scene 10 where Jack Cade says to Alexander Iden, a poor esquire of Kent:

JACK CADE:
Brave thee! ay, by the best blood that ever was
broached, and beard thee too. Look on me well: I
have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and
thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as
dead
as a doornail
, I pray God I may never eat grass more.

In 1843, Charles Dickens use the phrase with great effect in his work  “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” where he wrote:

“Old Marley was as dead as a door–nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door–nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin–nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door–nail.”

Posted in Idioms from the 13th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Fair Play

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 25, 2010

Fair play is an established and agreed upon standard of decency and honesty where individuals in a competitive situation agree to abide by the set standard of decency and honesty.

The word fair comes from the Old English word faeger, meaning beautiful; the word play comes from the Old English word plega.  The traditional forms of games and other recreational activities in Medieval England were violent in nature.  Fair play came about as a way to create a more orderly approach to playing games and participating in other recreational activities.

The reason for this was so that betting — also a popular pastime — would have a level playing field for its participants.  By creating equal opportunities for participants of competitions, a secondary level of competition was built up for spectators.  When everyone knew the game and its rules, gambling became a worthwhile venture worth betting on.

In this way, fair play was a more ethical and more genteel way to wage war without firing shots and, for the most part, did away with the concept of winning at all costs … especially if it meant cheating in order to achieve this goal.

Shakespeare coined this phrase fair play and used it in several of his plays. The earliest usage of the phrase is found in his play The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, written in 1611 when Prospero comes across Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess.

MIRANDA:
Sweet lord, you play me false.
 
FERDINAND:
No, my dear’st love,
I would not for the world.
 
MIRANDA:
Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,
And I would call it fair play.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Tower Of Strength

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 21, 2010

This expression “tower of strength” is found in The Book of Common Prayer written in 1549, originally was used most often to refer to God and heaven:

“O Lorde …  Bee vnto them a tower of strength.”

Shakespeare, being his own person, put a twist to the phrase in his play in Richard III written in 1594 where in Act 5, Scene 3:

KING RICHARD:
Up with my tent! Here will I lie tonight—
But where to-morrow? Well, all’s one for that.
Who hath descried the number of the traitors?

NORFOLK:
Six or seven thousand is their utmost power.

KING RICHARD:
Why, our battalia trebles that account!
Besides, the King’s name is a tower of strength,
Which they upon the adverse faction want.

But that’s not the first recorded use of the phrase “tower of strength.”  In fact, the legendary ancient Greek epic poet, Homer wrote The Odyssey in 800 B.C. where the following is found: 

“When I saw him I tried to pacify him and said, ‘Ajax, will you not forget and forgive even in death, but must the judgment about that hateful armor still rankle with you? It cost us Argives dear enough to lose such a tower of strength as you were to us. We mourned you as much as we mourned Achilles son of Peleus himself, nor can the blame be laid on anything but on the spite which Zeus bore against the Danaans, for it was this that made him counsel your destruction – come here, therefore, bring your proud spirit into subjection, and hear what I can tell you.’

So while I would love to give the prize to Mr. Shakespeare yet again, and while it might be refreshing to award the prize for this phrase to Homer, the phrase is a derivative of a phrase found in the Bible in Proverbs 18:10 where the following is written:

The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe.”

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Bible, Christian, Greece, Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Budge An Inch

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 20, 2010

It would seem that Shakespeare made the most of the popular phrases of his day along with adding a few of his own and “budge an inch” is no exception.

There are records of the inch as a unit measure being used circa AD 1000 (both Laws of Æthelberht and Laws of Ælfred).  Dating from the first half of the 10th century, the term “inch” is found in the Laws of Hywel Dda and was recorded in “Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales” (vol i., pp. 184,187,189).  The definition of an inch was that of “three lengths of a barleycorn.”

David I of Scotland (c. 1150) defined the old English ynche as being the breadth of a man’s thumb at the base of the nail.  To be more accurate, it was customary that the thumb breadths of three men — one small, one medium, and one large — be added together and then divided by three to arrive at a fair determination of an inch

In 1324, during the reign of England’s Edward II, the inch was redefined as “three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end lengthwise.” 

The use of “budge” as a verb, meaning “stir, move,” was also very new; the earliest example we have is from the 1580s, and about three years before Shakespeare’s play, “The Taming Of The Shrew” which was written between 1590 and 1594, and published in 1623 . 

It comes as no surprise that to refuse to “budge an inch” has become ingrained in the English language and clearly paints the picture of someone who is inflexible in changing his mind regardless of facts or laws, especially in light of the fact that in Scene 1, Shakespeare’s drunken Christopher Sly says:

HOSTESS:
You will not pay for the glasses you have burst?

SLY:
No, not a denier. Go by, Saint Jeronimy! go to thy cold bed, and warm thee.

HOSTESS:
I know my remedy; I must go fetch the thirdborough. [Exit]

SLY:
Third, or fourth, or fifth borough, I’ll answer him by law. I’ll not
budge an inch, boy; let him come and kindly. [Falls asleep]

Sly’s nonsensical response to the Hostess — “Go by, Saint Jeronimy!” — is a drunken misquoted famous line from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (“Go by, Hieronymo!”) written between 1582 and 1592.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

In Stitches

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 19, 2010

To be in stitches means that the individual finds himself or herself in a state of uncontrollable laughter, sometimes to the point of being in physical pain.

Stitches” refers to a stitch in the side — a piercing sensation just below the ribcage and the best way to relieve the pain is to stop what you are doing and to press your hand just below the pain. As this gesture has also been associated with full bodied laughter over the centuries, having a side stitch and being in stitches referred to the pain experienced from overexertion of the torso.

The phrase was first used by Shakespeare in his play of 1602, Twelfth Night, where Maria says:

If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourself into stitches, follow me. Yond gull Malvolio is turned heathen, a very renegado; for there is no Christian, that means to be saved by believing rightly, can ever believe such impossible passages of grossness. He’s in yellow stockings. “

Despite appearing in a play by William Shakespeare, the phrase did not catch on as other phrases coined by Shakespeare caught on. Several generations later, in July 1914, The Lowell Sun reported that the community could count among its community ” … Ben Loring, a natural-born comedian, who seems to have no difficulty whatever in keeping his audience in stitches of laughter and glee.”

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Send Him Packing

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 18, 2010

If you want to dismiss an individual peremptorily, it’s as  simple as sending him or her packing.  The book “Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: The Origin of our Vulgar and Provincial Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions” written in 1872 by John Brand, M.A., Fellow and Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London (England) contains the phrase on page 59 in the story “Sorcerer or Magician.”

GARDENER:
If he can once compass him, and get him in Lob’s pound, he’ll make nothing of him, but speak a few hard words to him, and perhaps bind him over to his good behaviour for a thousand years.

COACHMAN:
Ay, ay, he’ll send him packing to his grave again with a flea in his ear, I warrant him.

However, the phrase, “send him packing” goes back to William Shakespeare’s Henry IV written in 1596 where, in Part I, the following exchange is found between Falstaff and Henry:

FALSTAFF:
What manner of man is he?

HOSTESS QUICKLY:
An old man.

FALSTAFF:
What doth gravity out of his bed at midnight? Shall I give him his answer?

HENRY:
Prithee, do, Jack.

FALSTAFF:
‘Faith, and I’ll send him packing.

Shakespeare thought the phrase was so effective that he also used it in his play King Lear written between 1603 and 1606 in which we hear Ragan say:

“My father with her is quarter-master still,
 And many times restrains her of her will:
 But if he were with me, and served me so,
 I’d send him packing somewhere else to go.
 I’d entertain him with such slender cost
 That he should quickly wish to change his host.”

So once again, the prize goes to William Shakespeare for having penned the phrase “send him packing” that is now solidly entrenched in the English language.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Needle In A Haystack

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 17, 2010

Some will tell you that the first use of this expression is found in the book Don Quixote de la Mancha written by Miguel de Cervantes from 1605 through to 1615.   The expression ‘needle in a bottle of hay‘  is found in Part III, Chapter 10 of this great literary work.

An old alternative for the word ‘haystack‘ which was current in this expression from the 16th through to the 18th century, was “bottle of hay.”   ‘Bottle‘ is an old word for a ‘bundle of hay’ or ‘bundle of straw’, from the Old French word ‘botel‘ meaning ‘a bundle.’

But when all is said and done, there is a Fujian proverb that dates back 2,000 years from the Minnan dialect — also known as Ancient Chinese –that sounds oddly like the more modern phrase and has the same meaning.   In the “Chinese Proverbs in the Amoy Vernacular” published in March, 1887 the following proverb can be found:  “To dive into the sea, to feel for a needle.”

Posted in China, Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,814 other followers