Well, I’m about to put a flea in your ear.
Not literally. It’s one of many strange expressions we use in the English language that can confound people who are learning the ropes (or even the language).
Many of these sayings go back to medieval times and some of the origins are quite extraordinary.
I’m about to let the cat out of the bag on these phrases. You’ll be getting it straight from the horse’s mouth. I just hope the cat doesn’t get my tongue before I’m finished or you could end up giving me the cold shoulder and then I’ll have to face the music.
PLAYING WITH WORDS
As a storyteller and writer, I just love playing with words. They don’t have to be big and impressive, In fact, my early training in journalism taught me to keep it simple, so anyone can understand.
I am fascinated with the way certain phrases stick through each generation, their original meaning almost forgotten.
Take the truly Aussie phrase ‘fair dinkum”. It means to be genuine. There is a quirky story to one of the theories of its origin. It dates back to this country’s gold-digging days which attracted many foreigners to our shores.
A popular past time after a hard day’s work was drinking and gambling. The Aussies encouraged their new friends from across the seas to join in, which they happily did. However, they saved the drinking until after the gambling, in order to keep their heads clear for the game.
The locals began to realise what was happening after some heavy losses and demanded a fair go, as in fair drinking. The foreigners complied, agreeing they would drink before, during and after the game.
However, their accents made it sound like they were saying “fair dinkum” instead of “fair drinking”, which amused the Aussies no end, so they adopted the word for themselves.
PLAYING WITH WORDS – ARE YOU HAVING KITTENS?
Have you heard someone say; “I nearly had kittens?”
It implies they were extremely anxious or scared. No one takes it literally, not now.
But when the phrase was first being used, pregnant women were genuinely terrified they would have a litter of kittens.
During medieval times women who were suffering pain during pregnancy were assured by witches that the pain was caused by kittens in their womb and the only way to stop the suffering was by taking a magical potion.
An ancient Scottish superstition held that any woman who ate food on which cats had ejected their semen would give birth to kittens.
No wonder the phrase denotes fear and anxiety still.
So we know a white elephant refers to something that costs more to run than it is worth.
There are actually no albino elephants. However, some have paler colours than the majority and these were greatly prized by the ancient rulers of Siam.
While the other elephants worked hard, the ‘white’ elephants were worshipped and nourished while living an idle life, a considerable cost given the amount of food they ate.
According to one story, when the king wanted to get rid of a courtier but avoid hostility, he presented the courtier with the most prized gift – a white elephant.
This gift couldn’t be refused or disposed of later and in the end, the cost of keeping the animal would send the courtier broke.
I SEE RED
We often refer to something that enrages us as ‘a red rag to a bull’. In fact, bulls are colour blind and cannot see red. This phrase stems from early bullfighting days when the matador always used a red cape to gain the bull’s attention.
It was the movement of the cape, not the colour that attracted the bull. The bright colour used was to attract the spectators’ attention.
So even though this phrase is still used, it is based on fiction.
To put a flea in one’s ear means to tell them something unexpected or unwelcome.
It may be small and seem trivial (like a flea), but gains out of proportion importance when put in an ear (as a flea would).
PLAYING WITH WORDS – MIND YOUR Ps AND Qs
The phrase to mind your Ps and Qs (meaning to be careful in what you say and do), could date back to old alehouses. The innkeepers used to keep track of how many drinks a customer had consumed – in pints and quarts – by writing it on a board, or the wall. Drinkers fearful of being overcharged would remind the bartender to mind his Ps and Qs.
In the days when horses were the most popular mode of transport, potential buyers would insist on discovering straight from the horse’s mouth (rather than the seller’s), the age of the horse. You can tell the age of a horse by the amount of wear on its teeth.
When we give someone the cold shoulder it means we are showing an unfriendly response.
One theory about this phrase’s origins is that it actually refers to a cold shoulder of lamb. When a guest had overstayed his welcome or an uninvited dinner guest arrived, the host would serve a dish of cold mutton instead of a welcoming hot meal, as a hint that the guest was out of favour.
PLAYING WITH WORDS – WOULD YOU PAY THROUGH THE NOSE?
It would be pretty disgusting if we actually paid through the nose for something. The phrase means to pay an excessive amount.
This goes back to Viking days when the punishment for refusing to pay taxes was to have your nose slit from tip to eyebrow. Gruesome.
When we talk about applying a rule of thumb we mean to use a practical approach to solving problems.
However, this phrase has the sad and violent origins in a way to settle marital disputes.
According to a Glasgow Herald article in 1886, a judge ruled that “a man was entitled to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no thicker than his thumb”
PLAYING WITH WORDS – SO ARE YOU READY TO FACE THE MUSIC?
There are two theories for this phrase which means to take responsibility for one’s actions.
A military theory suggests a soldier being punished would be made to stand in front of the band and listen to the tapping of the drum while his wrongdoings were read out in front of his colleagues.
Another theory is that the phrase originated to describe the nerve-wracking point when an inexperienced actor must leave the wings and ‘face the music’ –the orchestra that is traditionally placed in the ‘pit’ between the stage and audience.
We might ask someone who is unusually quiet if the cat has their tongue.
Of course, we don’t believe for a minute that some crazy feline is walking around with a bunch of human tongues in its mouth. But this picture could be less gruesome than the origin of the phrase.
There are two theories on this one. The first refers to the silence of the English Navy sailors after being severely flogged with a whip called the “Cat-o’-nine-tails”
Another theory comes from ancient Egypt where the punishment for lying or blaspheming was to have your tongue cut out and fed to the cats.
TO LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG
Now I’m going to let the cat out of the bag on this one. That means to reveal hidden details.
It stems from olden-day markets and fairs when customers would be offered a discount to buy pre-packaged live pigs – tied up in a small sack. The sack was referred to as a poke.
Anyone agreeing to buy a pig in a poke was taking a risk as the traders would sometimes tie up a stray cat and put it in the sack, instead of a pig.
Customers concerned about this unscrupulous act would inspect the poke before purchasing by untying the top of the sack to find they had let the cat out of the bag.
Do you use any of these phrases? Would love to read in the comments what your favourite phrase is.
Wishing you a gleeful week, Tamuria.