We say a lot of things without thinking much about them. And so it is with sayings and phrases we all use— many with ancient origins. A surprising number come from various translations of the Bible and, not so surprisingly, the Bard himself, Shakespeare. Some are regarded as clichés, but that only means that they are durable and we feel comfortable using them.
There are so many of them that I can only randomly pick and choose my examples. “Pick and choose” is itself an idiom, meaning being selective, even if randomly selective seems to be a contradiction.
I’m going to start with an expression that seems fitting for the times. “Turn up trumps” has nothing to do with politics. It comes from “triumph,” which is not meant as a election prediction. It comes from the name of an old English card game where cards cut randomly from the deck were trump cards that outranked other cards until another trump card was drawn. Turn up trumps means to succeed, but it is a success that is only temporary. Talk about a mixed prophecy.
That preceding example may not be as familiar as most of the following, but I couldn’t resist.
The Bible, as previously noted, is the source of many of these expressions. That means that even the most godless among us are regularly quoting scripture and they don’t even know it. “A man after my own heart,” for example, means that two people have something in common, possibly kindred spirits. It is used more than once in the King James version of the Bible, most notably in Samuel 13:14 “…the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart…”
Then there is “give up the ghost,” which truly has its roots in the distant past with the 1535 Coverdale translation of the Bible. “And he was eaten vp of wormes, and gaue vp the goost,” it states in Acts 12:23. This was barely a century after the Gutenberg Bible ushered in printing of mass editions. A more recent translation of that verse may be more familiar: “And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.”
A final Biblical example is “a drop in the bucket,” which is stated thusly in one translation of Isaiah 40: 15: “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance…”
“Last straw” probably comes from the expression “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” That, of course, would be the last straw withstood by the camel.
“Let your hair down” is a feminine term that now applies to people who decide to cut loose or cast aside all inhibitions. Women, back in the 17th Century would, as a matter of routine, let their hair down, or unpin it, at the end of the day. How inhibited they were after that can only be answered by 17th Century men.
Another expression, “the milk of human kindness,” comes from being a compassionate and giving soul. Its origin, as in any of our most common sayings, can be attributed to Shakespeare (Macbeth), written more than 400 years ago.
Then there is “old hat,” which refers to something that is worn out or no longer fashionable. It’s been used thusly in print for more than 100 years, and its first known printed reference was to antiquated religious doctrines. As in the case of many of these phrases, they were likely part of the spoken language long before they appeared in writing.
The roots of many of these expressions are not always clear. The expression “on the wagon” means a period of sobriety or abstinence from alcohol. This goes back about 100 years, and some believe it came from a Salvation Army practice at the turn of the century of driving through New York’s Bowery and picking up the drunks. They would then be deposited in a more sobering environment. Others believe it goes back a little further to the water wagon used to water down dusty streets. Abstaining drunkards would turn to the water wagon for their liquid refreshment to achieve sobriety. Either version works for me.
The “short end of the stick” means getting worst end of something. It can be traced back at least a century, but it begs one question. Which end of a stick is short?
My grandmother would often say, when she strongly approved of something, “That takes the cake.” It seems there was a strutting or dancing competition among southern blacks starting in the late 1800’s that was known as a cakewalk. The usual prize to the winners was getting to take home a masterfully made cake. This should not be confused with “a piece of cake” or being “as easy as pie,” referring to something achieved with minimal effort. The easy part was not the making but the eating.
Our language is rich, creative and often confusing, I fear we may lose some of its richness, which ties us with the past and gives us a greater understanding of history as we explore its meanings. In many ways, we are creating a new language with texting, tweeting and such, much of it on a digital landscape. It certainly has its place, but, in many ways, it separates us from the past and a greater understanding of those who were here before us.