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Archive for the ‘Idioms from the 11th Century’ Category

Double Dutch

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 30, 2011

When’s the last time you heard someone say they heard someone speaking double Dutch?  Anyone who is accused of speaking double Dutch is being accused  by the listener of speaking gibberish.  Double Dutch also happens to be a jump rope game that uses two jump ropes swung simultaneously in opposite directions in a crisscross fashion.

In Chapter IX: Dr. Bauerstein in Agatha Christie’s book “The Mysterious Affair At Styles” written in 1916 and published by John Lane in the United States in October 1920 — published in the UK on January 1921 — the following conversation is written:

“You miss a lot. A really perfect bit of old china–it’s pure delight to handle it, or even to look at it.”

“Well, what am I to tell Poirot?”

“Tell him I don’t know what he’s talking about. It’s double Dutch to me.”

“All right.”

I was moving off towards the house again when he suddenly called me back.

“I say, what was the end of that message? Say it over again, will you?”

” ‘Find the extra coffee-cup, and you can rest in peace.’ Are you sure you don’t know what it means?”

I asked him earnestly.

He shook his head.

“No,” he said musingly, “I don’t. I — I wish I did.”

E.W. Hornung‘s book, “Raffles, Further Adventures Of The Amateur Cracksman” — which was also entitled “The Black Mask” in some countries — was published in 1899.  In this book, the following passage is found:

“Ah,” said he, “that was before I knew you were altogether without experience; and I must say that I was surprised even at Mr. Maturin’s engaging you after that; but it will depend upon yourself how long I allow him to persist in so curious an experiment. As for what is the matter with him, my good fellow, it is no use my giving you an answer which would be double Dutch to you; moreover, I have still to test your discretionary powers. I may say, however, that that poor gentleman presents at once the most complex and most troublesome case, which is responsibility enough without certain features which make it all but insupportable. Beyond this I must refuse to discuss my patient for the present; but I shall certainly go up if I can find time.”

In the John Davis book “Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America” published in January 1803, the following exchange happens between the First-mate and Mr. Adams:

First-mate. – You lie! It was one of my countrymen, Madoc ap Owen Gwyneth; I can give you chapter and verse for it.

Madoc wyf mwydic ei wedd
Jawn genau Owen Gwynedd;
Ni fynnwn dir, fy awydd oedd
Na aa mawr ond y Moroedd.

Mr Adams. – What devil language is that? Is it double Dutch coiled against the sun?

First-mate. – It is Welch.  It is what the full-breasted girls talk in the mountains.  If the frigate don’t blow us out of the water, and this fair wind holds, I hope next month to be bowsing some of their jibs up.  If they knew I was coming, they would give the Olive a tow.

By now, readers are possibly asking themselves why the English speak disparagingly about the Dutch language.  The fact of the matter is that when William the Conqueror defeated the British at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he made French the official language among nobility and the upper classes.  Up until that point, English and Dutch were dialects of the same language, sharing a basic Germanic vocabulary.  When English was reinstated as the official language of Britain in the 14th century, generations of peasants had changed the language to such an extent that it no longer resembled Dutch. 

To muddle things up more, some English words had become extinct, some Dutch words survived, and a large number of French words had infiltrated language in Britain in general.  By the time the Dutch Golden Age arrived there were over 2,000 words of Dutch origin in the English language.  And by the time the 16th century arrived, the word Dutch was an insult for anything the English regarded as inferior or contrary to English practice.

All this is why the English have referred to language they cannot understand as double Dutch.  While there is some Dutch in the English language, when a listener cannot make heads or tails of the conversation and it has become incomprehensible to him, it’s as if there’s double the amount of Dutch in the conversation than what someone is used to hearing normally.  This is what, in the opinion of the English of the 16th century, made the language inferior to English and so it is tagged as double Dutch by the listener.


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Landed Gentry

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 13, 2010

Landed gentry is a traditional social class found not only in the United Kingdom but also in parts of Europe.  It was made up of heads of household(read:  men) who were without title (read: they were not considered part of nobility) and who were considered members of upper class society. 

The landed gentry usually owned extensive land such as country estates, which oftentimes included tenanted farms, and their immediate family, although some were also involved in public service.  Because of financial circumstances, these men had no need for employment outside of managing their own lands and investments. 

Some of the landed gentry still hold land that their mediaeval ancestors held and many families of mediaeval descent can lay claim to having had one or more ancestors who increased or renewed the family fortunes through service to the Crown. 

The concept of landed gentry has continued from Medieval Times through to recent history.  For example, sixteen years ago, The Right Honourable Chevalier Professor Sir Devendra Prasad Varma, Ph.D., passed away unexpectedly.  His obituary read in part:

Dr Varma was a retired Full Professor Emeritus from Dalhousie University at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.  Born in Darbhanga, a Himalayan village overlooking Mount Everest on October 17th, 1923 to landed gentry parents, he eventually became a British / Canadian citizen. He was an internationally acclaimed scholar and the author of dozens of major articles and books in the scholarly discipline of Gothic Studies, making him the pre-eminent scholar in the field.

Back in the 1400s, the formation of the centralized Russian state in the second half of the 15th century led to the rise of a large cavalry composed of landed gentry.  It was only during the 1630’s that the landed gentry cavalry began to be gradually replaced by cavalry regiments organized in reiter and dragoon regiments.

Katharine Parr — the last of King Henry VIII‘s wives — was born into the landed gentry in 1512.  Formerly married to Edward Borough, whose father was a country squire and then to John Neville, Lord Latimer, Katharine Parr continued her upwardly rise in society when she married Henry VIII (after Henry VIII‘s death, she married a former suitor, Thomas Seymour, who had courted her at the same time as she was being courted by Henry VIII).

The farthest back that the term landed gentry can be traced to is 1030 when the Danish Viking King Sweyn invaded and conquered England. His son, Prince Canute was declared King of England upon King Sweyn‘s sudden death on February 3, 1014.  Among King Canute‘s Chiefs was a man known for making superior swords.  He found favour with King Canute who christened him Genergan which, translated into English, means “Iron Famous” and gave him the title of landed gentry in England. 

The name Genergan was later changed to Jernigan and the descendants of this line have been Knights, Barons and Baronets. At one point the Jernigan Barony even laid legal claim to the Stafford Barony.

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Sour Grapes

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 16, 2010

The phrase “sour grapes” hints at a rich history with many twists and turns along the way and the phrase surely doesn’t disappoint to this end.  In fact, it has been used often and prolifically and always to good effect.

In 1890, the New York Times published an article on April 23rd with a headline that read:  “Any Sour Grapes Here?  Bulkeley Is Not Seeking A Renomination For Governor.”  Nearly a decade before that, in 1882, his book “The Tyne And Its Tributaries,” William James Palmer wrote:

The ambition to become connected with the house of Stuart, ascribed to the grandfather, had realization in the marriage of his son to Mary Tudor, youngest natural daughter of Charles II.  But the sour grapes were left for the son of the marriage, and the beheading on Tower Hill, February 24, 1716, seems to have followed in almost natural sequence.

John Wycliffe (1324 – 1384), an Oxford-educated English theologian, lay preacher, reformist and university teacher was known as an early dissident in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century.  In 1371, the popularity of his doctrines were seenseen in the oft-repeated complaints of Archbishop Arundel, who wrote that “Oxford was a vine that brought forth wild and sour grapes, which, being eaten by the fathers, the teeth of the children were set on edge; so that the whole Province of Canterbury was tainted with novel and damnable Lollardism, to the intolerable and notorious scandal of the University.”

Rabbi Raschi,  born at Troyes in 1040, is credited with a story about a fox and a wolf who visit a Jewish house to prepare food for the Sabbath.   Upon arriving at the house, the wolf is chased away while the fox is welcomed.  When the wolf asks the fox for an explanation, the fox replies: 

This has happened not on thy account but on account of thy father who helped prepare the food and then swallowed every fat bit.  The fathers eat sour grapes and the chidlren’s teeth are set on edge.

The fable owes some of its story line to the Greek philosopher, Aesop.  In the Aesop fable “The Fox and the Grapes” the fox sees a cluster of ripe grapes hanging from the vine.  Despite her most ardent efforts, she cannot reach them and rather than admit defeat she proclaims, “The grapes are sour, and not ripe as I thought.”

And yes, the phrase even appears in the Old Testament of the Bible in Jeremiah 31: 28-33:

And it shall come to pass, that like as I have watched over them, to pluck up, and to break down, and to throw down, and to destroy, and to afflict; so will I watch over them, to build, and to plant, saith the LORD.

In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge.

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:  But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Bible, Christian, Greece, Idioms from the 11th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Jewish, Religious References | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Heavens To Murgatroyd

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 21, 2010

The phrase “Heavens to Murgatroyd” is considered to be a mild oath even though Snagglepuss from The Yogi Bear Show was known to use the phrase on a regular basis.  Before Snagglepuss, Bert Lahr  — the actor who played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz — spoke the phrase in the 1944 film Meet the People starring Dick Powell and Lucille Ball.

But who was Murgatroyd and what did he do that made him so famous that his name is known to this very day?

The surname is derived from the Medieval personal name Margaret and the Middle English word “royd” which means “clearing.”  So Mergatroyd is actually Margaret’s clearing.

Murgatroyd is a family name in the English aristocracy, found written down in books in Yorkshire where the family held a seat as Lords of the Manor prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.    The language of the courts after the Battle of Hastings was french for the next three centuries however, the name resurfaced in 1379 when John Mergetrode was listed as holding estates in the shire.

So when you hear someone say “Heavens to Murgatroyd” that’s quite a distance from beautiful place to beautiful place!

Posted in Idioms from the 11th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Heart On My Sleeve

Posted by Elyse Bruce 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).

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Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 21, 2010

Whether at a sports match or in a serious life situation, sometimes the front runner chokes and loses to his or her opponent.  Since no one is literally choking, the word must be part of a longer idiom.  And so it is.

In medieval England, when an individual was accused of a crime, he or she was given a piece of cheese and consecrated bread to eat to prove guilt or innocence.  If the individual was guilty, he would choke on the bread when the Angel Gabriel came down from Heaven to stop his or her throat.  Surely an innocent man (or woman) would be the winner and not choke when put to the test!

Thus the oath many would utter was, “May I choke if this is not true.”  Over the years, only the word choke remains of the idiom.

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Fast and Loose

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 23, 2010

During the Medieval times, one of the popular games at fairs was called “Fast and Loose.”   The game was a simple enough game to play and was a real crowd pleaser.

The game host would fold a belt and ask a player to pin the belt fast to the table with a skewer.  Once the player (and the audience) was certain that he had pinned the belt fast to the table with a skewer, the game host would suggest a wager on whether the player had indeed skewered the belt.

As anyone could see, the belt was most certainly pinned to the table, however, the water wasn’t about having pinned the belt, but rather having skewered the belt. 

With all the bets in, the game host would loose the belt and show it to everyone in the audience, proving that the player had not been pierced by the skewer anywhere on the belt.

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Nick Of Time

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 17, 2010

In medieval times, a tally stick was used to record and document attendance at school and at church, quantities of items, payments made and payments due in commerce, the collection of taxes by local sheriffs, and more.  In fact, in England,  the split tally of the Exchequer was in continuous use from Medieval times through to 1826.

The tally stick was a stick of wood upon which a ‘nick’ was made to accurately record information.  In many cases, time was pressing and so it was important to have the information recorded before the individual with the tally stick was no longer available to ‘nick’ the stick in favour of the individual.  If you arrived just before the recording ended, you had done so ‘just in the nick of time.’

In time, the phrase came to mean that if you do something in the nick of time, you do it at the very last minute or second.

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As A Rule Of Thumb

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 9, 2010

Most old English measures of distance were based on the body measurements of the king.

This means that the length of the foot, became known as a foot and was 12 inches long. An inch was the distance between the thumb tip to first knuckle while a cubit was the distance between the elbow and the tip of the index finger.  A yard was the distance between the tip of the nose and the tip of the index finger.

There is no truth to the myth that Old English law declared it was acceptable for a man to beat his wife as long as he used a stick no larger in diameter than his thumb.

There is no truth to the myth that the women’s rights movement came about due to this non-existent law.

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Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 28, 2010

Guido of Arezzo (aka Guido Aretinus aka Guido da Arezzo aka Guido Monaco aka Guido d’Arezzo) was a Benedictine monk in Italy.  He was also a highly regarded music theorist of the Medieval era and the inventor of modern musical notation that replaced neumatic notation.

The “do-re-mi” scale are actually syllables taken from the initial syllables of each of the first six musical phrases of the first stanza of the hymn “Ut queant laxis (Hymn to St. John the Baptist)”.

Ut queant laxis
Resonare fibris
Mira gestorum
Famuli tuorum
Solve polluti
Labii reatum

Originally, the first note of the scale was “Ut” which was later replaced by “Do”  inspired by the word Dominus (Lord).

When the octave was created, a name for the seventh note of the scale had to be found.  Guido of Arezzo decided that initial letters of the last line of this same hymn would be used — Sancte Iohannes — and “Si” was added to the scale.

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