Unearthed: The Sinister Origins of Sayings

I’m totally fascinated by the English language, although it is not my mother tongue.

This fascination grew as I began to realise that I had a certain affinity with words and, having read extensively during my youth, the need to learn more about the richness of the language and its application became more of a hobby than a desirable task for loquacity improvements.

It now transpires that some of the sayings have a sinister origin, while others are simply misused with the passage of time. They are nevertheless some of the most well-used phrases in Britain.

‘Paying through the nose’ and ‘pulling someone’s leg’ have a more sinister history than many people may have thought, research has found.

The English language is scattered with phrases that have dark origins stemming from hundreds of years ago. While in modern times they have seeped into everyday conversation, in the nineteenth century many of the sayings were used to describe some of the most violent practices of the day. Researchers from Genes Reunited, the family history website, tracked the origins of the phrases by looking at old newspapers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Examples of common phrases with dark origins include ‘gone to pot’, which was coined when boiling to death was a legal punishment; ‘meeting a deadline’, which refers to a line drawn to stop inmates escaping during the American Civil War – they would be shot in the head if they crossed it.

‘Applying a rule of thumb’ suggests practical approach-solving, but it was actually a violent way to settle marital disputes. According to an 1886 edition of the Glasgow Herald, a judge, Francis Buller, ruled ‘a man was entitled to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no thicker than his thumb’.

‘Paying through the nose’ was a Viking punishment where anyone who refused to pay tax had their nose slit from tip to eyebrow; ‘pulling someone’s leg’ originates from a time when London was rife with ‘grab and run’ thieves who attacked their victims by pulling them to the ground by their legs.

Rhoda Breakenn, head of Genes Reunited, said: ‘The English language is peppered with unusual sayings. We wanted to look back though old newspapers, now fully searchable online, to discover where they came from and what they really mean. It’s fascinating how different our modern interpretations are to the origins of these phrases. It goes to show how the lives of our ancestors have influenced our day-to-day lives in ways we don’t even realise.’

The researchers combed newspapers including the Herald (1901), Evening Post (1904), the Western Daily Press (1949), Glasgow Herald (1886) and the North Devon Journal (1896).

A recent survey highlighted how many phrases are misquoted. ‘A damp squib’, a term for failure named after a dud nineteenth-century explosive mining device, is often mispronounced as a ‘damp squid’. ‘One fell swoop’, uttered by McDuff in Macbeth, is often mistakenly repeated as ‘one foul swoop’.

I find the exploration of all this historical analysis of language usage intriguingly absorbing. Words and phrases and their provenance are a subject which has of late consumed a great chunk of my time giving me no end of satisfaction in discovering what one would have wrongly assumed to be a monotonous academic chore. Instead, and to my utter surprise, my engrossment in the whole exercise turned into a pleasurable habitude while at the same time bolstering my understanding of the language. It is a hobby I find worth pursuing.

One response to “Unearthed: The Sinister Origins of Sayings

  1. Hi Naim,
    An interesting habitude. Could make an entertaining book on the subject.