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Let’s not beat about the bush, the English language is full of weird and wonderful phrases.
Some of them are as old as the hills, while new words and phrases creep into common speech and become flavour of the month.
But where do they come from? New book Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pyjamas reveals the origins and meanings of some of the most popular and obscure sayings that we use everyday.
To Bite The Bullet
When you have to knuckle down and get on with something you really don’t want to do.
This saying originated in field surgery before the use of anaesthetic.
A surgeon about to operate on a wounded soldier would give him a bullet to bit on to distract him and make him less likely to scream.
Cat Got Your Tongue?
A way of asking someone why they are silent. There are several theories to the origins of this phrase.
Some argue that it stems from Middle Eastern punishment techniques when liars’ tongues were ripped out and then fed to the kings’ cats, while others suggest it refers to the cat-o-nine-tails that was used to flog sailors and force them into silence.
As Drunk As A Lord
This phrase first became common in the 18th century when drinking alcohol was something the wealthy liked to boast about.
At the time most people could not afford to buy the amount of booze needed to get very drunk, so over-doing it was a sign of wealth.
A Feather in One’s Cap
This saying is used to describe an honour or something to be proud of. It is thought to come from an ancient custom of adding a feather to your hat for each enemy you had killed.
Flavour of the Month
This is an American advertising phrase from the 1940s attempting to persuade shoppers to buy a different flavour of ice cream each month instead of sticking to their usual choice.
Now it is used to describe any short-lived craze, fashion or person that is quickly dropped after a time of being in demand.
For the High Jump
Slang for being in big trouble. The phrase refers to the hanging of a convicted criminal, the gallows being the ‘high jump’.
It is thought that this exclamation of surprise refers to James Gordon Bennett, the editor-in-chief of the New York Herald, who among other things was responsible for sending Henry Morton Stanley to find Dr David Livingstone in Africa.
Extravagant and extrovert, there is a motor race named after him in France where he lived after a scandal in America.
There is even a street in Paris named Avenue Gordon-Bennett.
The Hair of the Dog
We have all tried the hangover cure of having another drink the morning after the night before, with the idea being that like cures like.
It is thought the phrase originates in the 16th century when if you were bitten by a rabid dog, it was accepted medical practice to dress the would with the burnt hair of that dog as an antidote.
Amazingly this cure was recommended for dog bites for about 200 years before its effectiveness was doubted.
Where There’s Muck There’s Brass
We’ve all been told to roll our sleeves up and get to work.
Brass is a Yorkshire term for money and the phrase is linked with the grimy mining and manufacturing industries of the North which brought their owners vast wealth after the Industrial Revolution.
Spilling The Beans
To give away a secret or to tell all.
This phrase may have come from Ancient Greek voting practices where black and white beans were used to represent yes and no on the issue being voted on.
Each voter put one bean into a pot or helmet and the result was revealed by spilling out the beans.
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