Red Herrings and White Elephants : The Origins of the Phrases We Use Every Day

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2010-01-05
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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Mad hatter . . . pie in the sky . . . egg on your face. We use these phrases every day, yet how many of us know what they really mean or where they came from? From bringing home the bacon to leaving no stone unturned, the English language is peppered with hundreds of common idioms borrowed from ancient traditions and civilizations throughout the world. In Red Herrings and White Elephants, Albert Jack has uncovered the amazing and sometimes downright bizarre stories behind many of our most familiar and eccentric modes of expression: If you happen to be a bootlegger, your profession recalls the Wild West outlaws who sold illegal alcohol by concealing slender bottles of whiskey in their boots. If you're on cloud nine, you owe a nod to the American Weather Bureau's classification of clouds, the ninth topping out all others at a mountainous 40,000 feet. If you opt for the hair of the dog the morning after, you're following the advice of medieval English doctors, who recommended rubbing the hair of a dog into the wound left by the animal's bite. A delightful compendium of anecdotes on everything from minding your p's and q's to pulling out all the stops, Red Herrings and White Elephants is an essential handbook for language-lovers of all ages.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix
Introduction xiii
The Ancients: Greeks and Romans
Work and Trade
The Bible
People and Places
The Law
Music, Theatre and Performance
Food and Drink
Simple Phrases, Simple Origins
Index to phrases 251


Red Herrings and White Elephants
The Origins of the Phrases We Use Every Day

Chapter One


To be Taken Aback suggests someone has been taken truly by surprise and stopped in their tracks. 'Aback' is the nautical term for sudden wind change, in which the sails flatten against the mast. In some cases, out on the high seas, tall square-rigged ships may not only be slowed down by a sudden wind change, but also driven backwards by strong gusts. The phrase used in such circumstances is 'taken aback'.

To Have Someone Over A Barrel means that somebody is totally at the mercy of third parties and unable to have any influence over the circumstances surrounding them. In medieval Britain it was standard practice to drape a drowning, or drowned, person face down over a large barrel to try and clear their lungs. As the victim was usually unconscious it was obvious they were totally reliant upon third parties and whatever action they took would determine their fate. Not really an ideal situation to be in for many reasons – especially in the Navy.

The Bitter End is the absolute end. This phrase has its origins at sea and is nothing to do with taste. On the sailing ships of past centuries, the anchor was fixed to the deck by solid bollards made of iron and wood known as 'bitts'. Coloured rags were tied to the rope near the deck end and once they were revealed crewmates knew the anchor could not be let out much further. The rope between the anchor and rag was known as the bitt end or the bitter end. To be at the 'bitter end' meant there was no rope left and the water was too deep to set the anchor.

If something Goes By The Board it means it is cast aside, lost in the events. On the old wooden tall ships the 'board' was the side of the boat. Anything falling off a ship and lost forever was regarded as gone past the board, or 'by the board'.

By And Large is a phrase we use as a substitute for 'broadly speaking' or dealing with a subject in general terms rather than in a detailed way. The phrase is a nautical one and dates back to day when ships relied on the wind in their sails. Sailing 'by' means to steer a ship very close to the line of the wind, and sailing 'large' means the wind is on the quarter. This technique made it easier for helmsmen to keep a ship on course during changing winds and in difficult conditions but not in a particularly accurate way, just generally in the right direction. Large ships were assessed on their ability to sail 'by and large'. The phrase was a standard part of the nautical language by 1669 and in wider use by the turn of the following century.

When you have Had Your Chips your luck has run out and you are close to failing altogether. Often this is thought to relate to gambling casinos and the gaming chips they use as stake money. This certainly does ring true and can illustrate a situation where a desperate gambler, trying to win back his losses, could be told, 'You have had all your chips now.' But there is an earlier suggestion. An old naval story indicates workers in a dockyard were allowed to take home off-cuts of timber, known as chips, as a perk of the job. It was not uncommon for some men to fall out of favour with the foreman, perhaps for trying to take too many, and to have this privilege removed. In which cases they were told they had 'had all their chips'.

To Cut And Run describes pulling rapidly out of a difficult situation and escaping without disadvantage. The phrase was first recorded in 1704 and has a nautical meaning. Hauling a heavy anchor was a difficult task and took many men a considerable time to both free it and raise it back into the sling. Ships coming under attack from the shoreline could suffer considerable damage before the anchor could be dislodged and raised, so it became standard practice to chop the hemp anchor line with an axe and to allow the ship to 'run on the wind'. By 1861 the phrase to 'cut and run' was a standard naval expression.

Dead In The Water means an idea or scheme has no momentum and no chance of success. This is a nautical expression, dating back to the days of the sailing ships. On a windless day, with nothing to propel the vessel, a boat sitting motionless in the sea was known as 'dead in the water', going nowhere.

To be At A Loose End describes a time when we would normally be sitting around with nothing to do. We go back to the old tall ships to define this phrase. Any ship using sails would have thousands of ropes making up the rigging. Each of these lengths would need to be bound tight at both ends to prevent them from unravelling, which would be disastrous during a storm. When the ship's captain found seamen sitting around with nothing to do, he would usually assign them mundane labour such as checking the rigging for loose ends, and re-binding them. Therefore, idle men would find usually themselves 'at a loose end'.

On The Fiddle has nothing at all to do with the previous saying. Instead it implies someone is involved in something not entirely within the rules, and perhaps gaining more than they should be. This is a nautical saying and associated directly with the square ship plate (see Square Meal). Those square plates had a raised rim (as did the tables), which prevented food falling off in high seas and these rims were called 'fiddles'. Crew would become suspicious of a fellow sailor with so much food it piled against the rims and they became known as 'on the fiddle' (taking or being given more than they should).

Red Herrings and White Elephants
The Origins of the Phrases We Use Every Day
. Copyright © by Albert Jack. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Red Herrings and White Elephants: The Origins of the Phrases We Use Everyday by Albert Jack
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