Familiar Phrase Origins

sneeze-bless-youMany sayings or colloquialisms are centuries old but still in common use today.  Most of them originated in Europe and have surprising beginnings.


Armed to the teeth:  In Scotland the ruler “Bonnie Prince Charlie” was preparing for war, and sent out word to his captains to gear up for battle, and rendezvous at a place near the Teeth River.  His message was “Come armed to the Teeth”. Another theory is that pirates of Jamaica in the 1600s wanted to maximize their weaponry and would carry a flintlock in each hand and a knife in their teeth, hence the phrase.


Nailed to the wall:  In England long ago, if a merchant was caught using inaccurate weight scales, the punishment was swift.  In the morning he was taken to a public place and made to stand on a barrel next to a wall.  His ear was nailed to that wall, where he then stood all day, bleeding, heckled, and very uncomfortable.  He was also in mental anguish thinking about what was going to happen at the end of the day, when an official kicked the barrel out from under him and tearing his ear off of the nail.  Thus, to be in a hopeless situation is to be “nailed to the wall”.


Getting hammered:  A town called Gretna Greene in Scotland used to allow legal marriage at a younger age than surrounding villages, and so became a popular place for young couples to come and elope.  Marriage demand exceeded the supply of ministers. To resolve the problem, the town made it legal for blacksmiths, which were plentiful, to carry out a marriage ceremony, which was very short   The couple stood before the anvil, exchanged a few vows, the blacksmith clanged the anvil with his hammer and pronounced them married.  It was so simple and fast that it was easy for a young lad to come into town, get drunk, and wake up the next day married.   He could literally say, “I really got hammered last night!”


Dirt poor:  While the wealthy of England could afford slate floors, the poor had to contend with floors of dirt.


Bringing home the bacon:  Meat was a luxury for the poor of Europe, and if one could afford to buy pork, it was a symbol of prestige to bring it home.  To show off to visitors, one would cut off a little to share and sit around to “chew the fat”.


Bless you:  When the Plague was running rampant and killing many thousands of people in early Europe, there were not enough Priests around to give your last prayer before you died.  Sneezing was a common symptom of plague, so if you sneezed it was assumed you were a goner and those around you would say “God bless you” in case the Priest didn’t arrive in time.



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