English is a beautiful language. Not because it is rhythmic or melodic or filled with words that slip off your tongue like caresses. No. English is a beautiful language because it’s a bloody mess. It’s a quilt made up of random scraps. A potluck dinner of a language. One of those cocktails students make by mixing every drink they have together in a hollowed out watermelon. And then drink. Without gagging. Because they are students.
It’s not the English’s fault their language ended up this way. It’s just that everyone kept invading them and leaving words lying around. Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Jutes, Romans, Normans, they all popped round for a little firing and swording and left bits of their languages scattered across the landscape.
The English were clearly not averse to this, because when the world was finished invading them, they went off and invaded the world. And brought back words. Words from Africa, India, China, the Americas. Words from Australia.
Reading a passage in English is like being an archaeologist. Every word has a story behind it. Words in English are like relics, pointing to long forgotten pages in a history spanning thousands of years.
But I’m not writing about words today. That would take several volumes and a degree in linguistics. And I seem to have misplaced mine. I’m writing about phrases. Expressions. We all use them, all of the time. They are so much a part of our vocabulary that we never stop to think about them.
We should. All those expressions we use come from somewhere. Sometimes their origins are lost in the mists of time. And sometimes we make up origins because they just sound cool, like “posh” having started life as an acronym for “Port Out, Starboard Home”, because wealthy passengers headed for India would pay a premium to have a cabin on the side of the ship protected from the sun, or the F-bomb have started off as a criminal charge for having “Full Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”.
But most of the time, those origins can be tracked down. And they are quite fun to read about. They give us a glimpse into history. Not schoolyard history, filled with battles and discoveries and catastrophes, but a more intimate sort of history; a glimpse into the sorts of things everyone would have been so familiar with that they could drop them into conversation without fear of being misunderstood.
And some of them got dropped into conversation so often that we’ve carried on saying them, without fear of being misunderstood, long after we forgot what they meant.
Ever been so cross with someone you wanted to blow them away? We all know what it means. It means shoot someone. But it doesn’t make any sense. Blowing is a gentle thing to do. Shooting isn’t. It did make sense to people who lived in New Orleans, however. They had jazz funerals, where the coffin was played through the streets by a band. A brass band. Dead people were blown away. Thecriminal element got hold of the phrase and started using it to describe a slightly early step in the whole funeral process.
Ever felt like you were on cloud nine? I hope it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Cloud nine was a real cloud. Or rather it was a type of cloud. The American Weather Bureau used to classify clouds according to numbered types. Cloud nine was a cumulo-nimbus cloud. Type nine. The highest. And a flash in the pan happened when you pulled the trigger on your musket and saw the powder in the priming pan flash, but the gun didn’t fire.
We seem to have taken a lot of our expressions from fighting. It would be a very bad thing if you put your arse on the line and didn’t come up to scratch. So why would you be putting your arse on the line? Ever watched little boys trying to start a fight? One of them might draw a line in the sand. “If you cross that line”, he will say, “it’s on!”, because his parents let him watch too many movies. And if the other boy steps over the line, guess where his arse will be.
And as for coming up to scratch, boxing used to be a little more robust than it is today. The gloveless boxers would fight until one was knocked down. Then they would be given 30 seconds to recover, and another 8 seconds to make their way to a line that had been scratched on the floor of the ring. And if they didn’t come up to the scratch, the fight was over.
Speaking of fighting, has anyone ever threatened to lick you into shape if you don’t put a sock in it? Back in the day, people had some odd notions about wildlife. They thought that bears gave birth to amorphous little blobs, which were then literally licked into the shape of a bear by their mothers. And the first gramophones didn’t come with a volume control. They were either on or off. So if you wanted to turn one down, you put a sock in it.
It’s better just to avoid trouble. If you don’t keep your nose clean, you’re either going to have to face the music or cut and run. Ever sipped on a nice, frothy beer and found your nose covered in foam? Alcohol causes all sorts of problems, and is best avoided. Run into too many problems in the military, and you could be drummed out. You would appear before a full parade, complete with band, and would have to stand facing them as they read out the charges, stripped your uniform of its insignia, and broke your sword. Which seems like a bit of a waste. And cutting and running? Sailing ships in precarious situations would lie at anchor with their sails furled in such a way that they could drop them into place quickly by cutting a few well-placed ropes.
There’s tons of this stuff out there, and finding it is one of life’s joys. But my favourites are the ones that you just don’t hear any more. The ones that are dying out because they’re too obscure. Or just plain nasty.
Ever had a fine country gentleman tell you he was pissing on ice? Before fridges were invented, ice used to be a pretty expensive commodity. The finest hotels in the States used to put ice in the urinals, ostensibly to cut down on the smell, but really to show the patrons that no expense had been spared when it came to their comfort. So if you were living the high life, you were pissing on ice.
Musicians these days can earn staggering amounts of money. Just ask the nearest gangster rapper; he’s just dying to tell you about it. But it wasn’t always like that. Back in the day, musicians playing at weddings and other parties sometimes didn’t get paid at all. They were, however, allowed to eat and drink as much as they wanted to. Which led, I would imagine, to a significant drop-off in the quality of the music by the end of the night.
But the musician’s excesses would be hampered by the fact that he was a little busy with that whole music thing. The woman accompanying him, however, would have had no such limitations. Which gave rise to the charming old saying “as drunk as a fiddler’s bitch”. It’s ugly and it’s brash and it’s misogynistic, but say it out loud and tell me it doesn’t just sound right. You’ll fight the urge, I’m sure, but I defy you not to want to use it to describe your dodgy uncle after he lets the side down at Cousin Nadine’s reception this weekend.
Well’ that’s me for today. The sun is well over the yardarm, so I think it’s time for me to splice the mainbrace. I’ll try not to go the whole nine yards, though, or Mrs 23thorns will read me the riot act, and I’ll have to show her a clean pair of heels.