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Another Forward Debunked: Who Knew?

Answer: Sure as hell not the writer of this putrescence.

Recently received (from a friend, and in fun, so no judgment there) an email entitled "Who Knew?". It purports to explain the origin of several common English expressions.

By the holy skull of Mogg's grandmother! With two exceptions, these look like they were crapped out by a drunken badger. Yes, they're amusing to read, but the large majority are pure rubbish, and made me weep with frustration that

  1. someone would be ignorant enough to craft this rotting manure, and
  2. most people would blithely swallow it, and forward it to everyone in the whole world.

As a result, by the power and authority vested in me by numerous institutions of higher learning, I give you the straight dope.

In the late 1700's, many houses consisted of a large room with only one chair. Commonly, a long wide board folded down from the wall, and was used for dining. The 'head of the household' always sat in the chair while everyone else ate sitting on the floor. Occasionally a guest, who was usually a man, would be invited to sit in this chair during a meal. To sit in the chair meant you were important and in charge. They called the one sitting in the chair the 'chair man.' Today in business, we use the expression or title 'Chairman' or 'Chairman of the Board.'

A chairman is the leader of a committee or parliamentary body. The origin is, as one might guess, a compound of the words chair + man. The chair is a reference to a seat or position of authority and the man is, of course, a reference to the person who occupies it. The word dates to 1654 when it appears in John Trapp’s Commentary of the Book of Job:

I sate chief, and was Chair-man.

Personal hygiene left much room for improvement. As a result, many women and men had developed acne scars by adulthood. The women would spread bee's wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman's face she was told, 'mind your own bee's wax.' Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the term 'crack a smile'. In addition, when they sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt . . . Therefore, the expression 'losing face.'

[Obscenity] [Profanity] Bollocks.

First: the term beeswax, commonly used in the phrases mind your own beeswax or none of your beeswax, is an Americanism dating to 1934. It is simply an intentional malapropism for business.

Second: 'Lose face' began life in English as a translation of the Chinese phrase 'tiu lien'. That phrase may also be expressed in English as 'to suffer public disgrace', i.e. to be unable to show one's face in public. In 1876, the consular official Sir Robert Hart published a series of essays - These from Land of Sinim - Essays on the Chinese question which included this observation:

"The country [China] begins to feel that Government consented to arrangements by which China has lost face; the officials have long been conscious that they are becoming ridiculous in the eyes of the people."

Hart was well-regarded in both Britain and China. In addition to his baronetcy he was awarded the CMG, KCMG, and GCMG. China honoured him with several high status awards, including the title of grand guardian of the heir apparent, an honour never before (or after) bestowed on a foreigner.

'Save face' comes later. It has no direct equivalent in Chinese and is merely the converse of 'lose face'. The first known record of it in print is in the June 1899 edition of The Harmsworth Magazine:

"That will save my face in the City."

As incredible as it sounds, men and women took baths only twice a year (May and October) Women kept their hair covered, while men shaved their heads (because of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford good wigs made from wool. They couldn't wash the wigs, so to clean them they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell, and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the term 'big wig.. ' Today we often use the term 'here comes the Big Wig' because someone appears to be or is powerful and wealthy.

This is the worst sort of rubbish. Bigwig simply refers to the large wigs that important men (or simply distinctive men) wore when wigs were fashionable. It dates from the early 18th century.

Ladies wore corsets, which would lace up in the front. A proper and dignified woman, as in 'straight laced' wore a tightly tied lace.

First, it is spelled strait-laced. Second, its original meaning was "tightly laced" (regarding a bodice or similar piece of clothing), but it is not because proper ladies wore tightly-laced corsets that we have the term strait-laced meaning "prudish" today. Instead, if the bodice were tightly laced, it would be somewhat rigid, especially if it contained stays. This notion of rigidity was transferred to strait-laced when applied to human conduct, and eventually the "rigid" sense changed to "prudish". The term (with these meanings) first appears in the mid-16th century.

Any woman could wear a strait-laced bodice, not just proper or dignified ladies.

Common entertainment included playing cards. However, there was a tax levied when purchasing playing cards but only applicable to the 'Ace of Spades..' To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, these people were thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren't 'playing with a full deck.'

Cards were taxed, yes, and the tax stamp often appeared on the ace of spades. This does not mean to suggest that only the ace of spades was taxed. Nonsense. The entire deck was taxed when it was sold, and the decks were sealed (often with a tax label) so there was no way to remove an ace of spades, anyhow. Not playing with a full deck is simply similar to other constructions describing intelligence (or lack thereof): not the sharpest knife/ brightest bulb in the box, a few bricks short of a load, the lights are on but nobody's home, etc. Most of these come from the 20th century.

Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what the people considered important. Since there were no telephones, TV's or radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars. They were told to 'go sip some Ale and listen to people's conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were dispatched at different times. 'You go sip here' and 'You go sip there.' The two words 'go sip' were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion and, thus we have the term 'gossip.'

Horsefeathers. This is a very old word with a relatively modern meaning. It comes from the Old English godsibb, meaning a godparent or baptismal sponsor. It is a compound of god + sib (meaning blood relation as in sibling). From Wulfstan’s 1014 Sermo Lupi ad Anglos:

Godsibbas and godbearn to fela man forspilde wide þynd þas þeode.
(Gossips and godchildren to many of those destroyed far and wide while they thrived.)

By the 14th century, the term was being used to mean a close friend, one you might chose to be godparent to your children. It was applied to both men and women, although in later uses it came to be applied only to women. From William Langland’s 1362 The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman:

“Ic haue good ale, gossib,” quod heo. “Gloten, woltou asaye?”
("I have good ale, gossip,” they said. “Glutton, wouldn’t you call it?")

By the mid-16th century, gossip was being used to mean a flighty woman, one who would engage in idle talk. From Thomas Drant’s 1566 A Medicinable Morall, That Is The Two Bookes of Horace His Satyres Englished:

Full gosseplike, the father sage beginnes his fable then.

From there it came to mean the idle talk itself. From Sporting Magazine of 1811:

I was up to his gossip, so I took him.

And from Washington Irving’s Sketch Book of 1820:

A kind of travelling [sic] gazette, carrying the whole budget of local gossip from house to house.

(Source: OED)

At local taverns, pubs, and bars, people drank from pint and quart-sized containers. A bar maid's job was to keep an eye on the customers and keep the drinks coming. She had to pay close attention and remember who was drinking in 'pints' and who was drinking in 'quarts,' hence the phrase 'minding your 'P's and Q's'.

This is the one origin that may be true, although a number of other theories have been proposed (source: Wikipedia).

One origin of the story of "mind your Ps and Qs" comes from early printing presses. Printers placed individual letters on a frame to print a page of text. The letters were reversed, making it easy to mistake lowercase ps and qs in setting the type. A reminder to stay watchful of the details could have come from this time as well. In a similar setting, this expression has been attributed as an adage for teaching children to spell.

Another origin comes from English pubs and taverns of the seventeenth century. Bartenders would keep a watch on the alcohol consumption of the patrons; keeping an eye on the pints and quarts that were consumed. As a reminder to the patrons, the bartender would recommend they "mind their Ps and Qs". This may also have been a reminder to bartenders not to confuse the two units, written as "p" and "q" on the tally slate.

Other origin stories, some considered "fanciful", could come from French instructions to mind one's pieds (feet) and queues (wigs) while dancing. However, there is no French translation for this expression. Another origin could be from sailors in the eighteenth century who were reminded to pay attention to their pea (coats) and queue (wigs).

A possible origin or at least similar expression comes from seventeenth-century slang. "P and Q" meant "prime quality" or "highest quality". It has also been seen as "pee and kew", though it is unclear what either literally stand for. It seems unlikely that the phrase "P and Q" stood for "prime quality", because that does not explain the presence of the word "and".

It is also possible that the expression refers to the careful reading of Medieval Latin texts: the letters "p" and "q" had various scribal abbreviation symbols for different shortened words. For example, "q" with a dot over it was the abbreviation for "quod" while "p" with a line through the tail of the letter was the symbol for "per". Minding that these abbreviations were interpreted accurately (i.e. that one read "per" as opposed to "post" or "pro") would ensure the correct reading of the text.

Another explanation suggests that "Ps and Qs" is short for "pleases" and "thank-yous", the latter of which contains a sound similar to the pronunciation of the name of the letter "Q". This phrase would be used by parents to educate their children to not forget to use those polite words when they speak to people. Possibly, it meant "please" and "excuse me." Young children would pronounce them as Ps and Qs.

In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons. Those cannons fired round iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon. However, how to prevent them from rolling about the deck? The best storage method devised was a square-based pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four resting on nine, which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one problem...how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding or rolling from under the others. The solution was a metal plate called a 'Monkey' with 16 round indentations. However, if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make 'Brass Monkeys.' Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannonballs would come right off the monkey; Thus, it was quite literally, 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.' (All this time, you thought that was an improper expression, didn't you.)

Total badger ejecta. There is a very complete and long explanation here: I recommend it to you.

Did you know the saying "God willing and the Creeks don't rise" was in reference to the Creek Indians and not a body of water? It was written by Benjamin Hawkins in the late 18th century. He was a politician and Indian diplomat. While in the south, Hawkins was requested by the President of the U.S. to return to Washington . In his response, he was said to write, "God willing and the Creeks don't rise." Because he capitalized the word "Creeks" it is deduced that he was referring to the Creek Indian tribe and not a body of water.

One of many possible origins of a phrase whose true beginning is in dispute, much like the ubiquitous "OK." An in-depth discussion is here.

In George Washington's days, there were no cameras. One's image was either sculpted or painted. Some paintings of George Washington showed him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while others showed both legs and both arms. Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be painted. Arms and legs are 'limbs,' therefore painting them would cost the buyer more. Hence the expression, 'Okay, but it'll cost you an arm and a leg.' (Artists know hands and arms are more difficult to paint)

Bah. Cost an arm and a leg is not recorded until the 20th century, suggesting that it may have arisen in the late 19th century. Photography was available then. The sense of the phrase is literal: paying for something with one's arm and leg is simply too expensive.

Some of these explanations come from here, others from here, and still others dug up from various places on the net.

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Jan. 12th, 2012 12:37 am (UTC)
Breathe in...breathe out... breathe in...breathe out...
Jan. 12th, 2012 01:53 am (UTC)
Thank you, thank you... *fff... fff...*
Jan. 12th, 2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
Partridge is normally ahead of the game.
Jan. 12th, 2012 05:20 pm (UTC)
Some of these myths I might have entertained briefly before follow-up research, but I could've explained "None of your beeswax" and "bigwig" in my single digits. I had no idea of the origin of "gossip," but I wouldn't have believed the one in blue for a minute.

I had not suspected such an exotic origin to "lose face," even if it has no article or possessive adjective. FWIW, I once thought Natalie Imbruglia sang, "I'm all out of face," in oblique reference to this phrase. (It's "faith.")

"Strait-laced" I've rarely seen in print, so I didn't even remember the spelling. Sufficiently old expressions may keep contrary spellings anyhow, so I wouldn't have assumed a different meaning from "straight."

If the printing press theory of p's and q's is correct, then they could just as easily have used b's and d's. Of course, those don't sound as distinct.


The Old Wolf

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