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Archive for May, 2010

Sorry Sight

Posted by Admin on May 14, 2010

Finally, we have come across a phrase written by Shakespeare for which he and he alone can take credit!   In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth written in 1605, the phrase “sorry sight” makes its first appearance — not once, but twice — in Act 2, Scene 2.

Hark! Who lies i’ the second chamber?


This is a sorry sight.
[Looking on his hands]

A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight.

Sometimes finding the origins of a phrase, cliché, expression or word is as easy to find as a needle in a haystack.   Sometimes it’s easy as pie!

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

Mum’s The Word

Posted by Admin on May 13, 2010

Although the word “Mum” came into vogue in Britain in 1823 as a term of endearment for one’s mother, this is not the “mum” that’s meant in the phrase “mum’s the word.”  Mum is a word from the late 14th century, between 1350 and 1400, that means “silence.”

The origins of the phrase can be traced back to the fifteenth century Towneley Plays performed from the late Middle Ages until 1576.  These plays are a series of 32 mystery plays based on the Bible and the Towneley Plays are but one of only four surviving English mystery play cycles that were written by multiple authors over the course of approximately two centuries.  It is in these plays that one can find the phrase written thus:

Though thi lyppis be stokyn, yit myght thou say ‘mum’.”

And, of course, what phrase from England from that time period could escape being included in some form or other in a play from Shakespeare?  Yes, in Henry VI the sense of the phrase is found in Part 2, Act 1, Scene 2 when Hume says:

    “Seal up your lips, and give no words but mum:
    The business asketh silent secrecy

Yes, it’s obvious that in 1594, the playwright also believe that “mum” was the word without a doubt.  Interestingly enough, the exact phrase “mum’s the word” became wildly popular over a hundred years after Shakespeare‘s play, in the 1700s and although still used today, it is not as popular a phrase as it once was.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

In The Twinkling Of An Eye

Posted by Admin on May 12, 2010

William Shakespeare used the phrase “in the twinkling of an eye” in his play “The Merchant of Venice” in 1596.  Launcelot, in speaking with his father Bassanio, says:

Well, if Fortune be a woman,
she’s a good wench for this gear.
  Father, come; I’ll take my leave of the Jew
  in the twinkling of an eye.

However, Shakespeare was not the first to use the phrase in his literary work. Robert Manning of Brunne, wrote Handlyng Synne in 1303 in which the phrase was used: “Yn twynkelyng of an ye

However, Manning was not the first to use this phrase either.  The phrase can be found in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 15:52 where you can find the following written:

“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

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

The Early Bird Catches The Worm

Posted by Admin on May 11, 2010

The saying is found in John Ray’s “A Collection of English Proverbs” published in 1670:  “The early bird catcheth the worm.”  Because the title of John Ray’s book indicates that this was considered a proverb  in the 17th century, its history goes back even further.

The saying is a translation from the French: “L’avenir appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt.”  Loosely translated, the saying is: “The future belongs to those who rise early.”

This saying is a translation of the German saying :  “Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund.”  Loosely translated, the saying is: “The morning hours have gold in their mouths.”

This saying is a translation of the Latin saying, “Aurora musis amica est.”  Loosely translated, the saying is:  “Dawn is a friend of the muses.”

Although it is impossible to identify who first spoke the Latin version of “the early bird catches the worm” it is known that the Dutch theologian, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466 – 1536) used this phrase in his book “De Ratione Studii Epistola” published in 1513.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 17th Century, Rome | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Heart On My Sleeve

Posted by Admin on May 10, 2010

This phrase was spoken by Iago in Othello (Act 1, scene 1) written by William Shakespeare in  1604.

In complement extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve.
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.

When knights fought each other, beginning in the Early Medieval Ages, they would oftentimes dedicate their performance to a woman of the court — usually someone with whom they were in love. To let their feelings be known to all, the knights publicly displayed cloths, handkerchiefs or ribbons belonging to the woman by tying it to one of his sleeves prior to his jousting match. 

English chronicler, Roger of Hoveden (fl. 1174 – 1201),  described jousting tournaments as “military exercises carried out, not in the spirit of hostility (nullo interveniente odio), but solely for practice and the display of prowess (pro solo exercitio, atque ostentatione virium).”   The first recorded tournament was staged in 1066 when a chronicler of Tours in the late twelfth century recorded the death of an Angevin baron named Geoffroi de Preulli in 1066.

The sport did not gain widespread popularity until the 12th century and maintained its status as a popular European sport until the early 17th century.  That being said,  Georg Rüxner’s book  Thurnierbuch (1579) details the tournament laws of Henry the Fowler, King of Germany (919-936).

Posted in Idioms from the 11th Century, Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Too Much Of A Good Thing

Posted by Admin on May 7, 2010

American Actress and iconic vamp, Mae West (1892-1980) was quoted as saying, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”  

However, as original as it may have sounded when Mae West said those words, she was merely paraphrasing from Shakespeare’s play of 1599, “As You Like It” when Rosalind says to Orlando: 

“Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?”

But the spirit of the phrase reaches far back again to the Bible where,  in I Cor 12:31, the following can be found:

But earnestly desire the greater gifts.  And I show you a still more excellent way.”

Posted in Bible, Christian, Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Laughing Stock

Posted by Admin on May 6, 2010

There are those who claim that William Shakespeare is responsible for the phrase “laughing stock” because it appeared in his play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, that was first performed some time between 1600 and 1601.  In Act 3, scene 1, Sir Hugh Evans says to Doctor Caius:

“Pray you let us not be laughing-stocks to other men’s humours; I desire you in friendship, and I will one way or other make you amends.”

As much as would like to credit Shakespeare for this phrase, alas, he cannot lay claim to it.  In the 1533 book An other boke against Rastel by John Frith, the following passage can be found:

“Albeit … I be reputed a laughing stock in this world.”

The origin of the phrase is linked with the medieval practice of putting people into stocks as a punishment for a variety of crimes.  Despite the discomfort this caused those who were in the stocks, what was worse was the torture and ridicule they suffered at the hands of their fellow villagers.

The laughing part of “laughing stock” is a given.  However, the word “stock”  first appeared in English in 862, adapted from the German word meaning tree trunk.  What’s more, at the time, the word stock meant “something or someone treated as the object of an action, more or less habitually.”

Just as a person who was publicly scorned was referred to as a pointing stock, and a person who was frequently whipped was a whipping stock, those who were frequently laughed at were known as laughing stocks.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 9th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

What’s Past Is Prologue

Posted by Admin on May 5, 2010

In the 2008 Vice Presidential Debate against Sarah Palin, Senator Joe Biden quipped, “what is past is prologue” when he was accused of focusing too much on the past.  Oliver Stone’s movie JFK ends with the phrase “What is past is prologue.”  The phrase is even incised in stone over the entrance to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  Surely the phrase must be American!

The earliest publication of the phrase is found in Act II, Scene in The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1564–1616).  The direct quote, spoken by Antonio in lines 253 to 54,  is:   

Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge

So while the phrase is a much-loved American idiom, it originates in England with Shakespeare.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century, Idioms from the 21st Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Eaten Out Of House and Home

Posted by Admin on May 4, 2010

Old Mother Hubbard was eaten out of house and home by her many children.  The three bears were eaten out of house and home thanks to Goldilocks and her voracious appetite.  So who exactly is responsible for this phrase?

The Rise of Historical Criticism, written and published in complete form in 1908 by late-Victorian playwright and celebrity Oscar Wilde used the phrase.    Charles Darwin used the phrase in his book On The Original of the Species published in 1859.

The earliest published version of the phrase can be found in Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Part II) written in 1597 where Mistress Quickly says:

It is more than for some, my lord; it is for all, all I have. He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his: but I will have some of it out again, or I will ride thee o’ nights like the mare.”

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

Hobson’s Choice

Posted by Admin on May 3, 2010

Hobson’s choice is an apparently free choice that offers no real alternative. In other words, it’s a take it or leave it choice.

The phrase dates back to the 16th century where Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), English keeper of a livery stable, established the requirement that customers renting a horse from him had to take either the horse nearest the stable door or no horse at all.  

Hobson owned the horses, he owned the accoutrements that went with the horses, and he was responsible for the horses’ upkeep ergo he made the rules by which people could rent his horses.  That was Hobson’s choice

The reason for renting horses out in this way was because he had a number of young Cambridge University undergraduates who would rent out his horses and then treat them badly by driving them too hard and wearing them out. 

Since the students wouldn’t listen to his admonishments, he instituted a rota to give his horses time to recover from their mistreatment.  The most recently returned horse was put at the end of the queue which meant the most rested horse would be at the front.  The rule was always enforced and there were no exceptions to the rule.

John Milton wrote two poems about him shortly after his death in 1631, Milton wrote: “He had bin an immortall Carrier.”  In fact, in 1660, less than thirty years after Hobson’s death, Quaker scholar Samuel Fisher referred to the phrase in his religious text, The Rustick’s Alarm to the Rabbies:

“If in this Case there be no other (as the Proverb is) then Hobson’s choice … which is, chuse whether you will have this or none.”

Thomas Ward’s poem England’s Reformation written in 1688, but not published until after his death, had this line:

“Where to elect there is but one, ’tis Hobson’s choice — take that or none.”

And of course, let’s not forget that at the turn of the 20th century, Henry Ford sold the Ford Model T with the famous Hobson’s choice of “any color so long as it’s black.”

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »