Our English language – new and old idioms

English as a language has been around for centuries. We still enjoy Shakespeare’s plays and they’re from the mid-1500s. So it should be easy to write about 1796; we’re all speaking the same language, right?

Well, yes and no. English is a living language and as such keeps changing. Think about all the new terms that have arrived on the heels of the computer revolution. And there are changes in speech patterns too. My mother frequently decried the increasing informality of conversation and the use of nouns as verbs. Just think of ‘texting’ from text. Or “I must netflix that movie.”

Medical terms like ‘mastitis’, an inflammation in the breast, wasn’t used until the mid 1800’s.  And Rex, as a name for a dog. wasn’t used before about 1820. A writer, therefore, has to be careful not to add too many anachronisms to the manuscript. Sometimes, thought, it is necessary just for the sake of clarity.

What I think is surprising is the longevity of some of the idioms we still use. ‘Strike while the iron is hot’ is one common expression. No, it doesn’t mean your mother is going to whip out the iron. It is a blacksmithing expression. Iron was shaped while it was hot and pliable by pounding upon it. If you wanted to create something like a sword from an iron rod, it would need to be heated and pounded, over and over.

How about ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ ? This one is very old. It’s been traced back to Chaucer, although the sentence structure was different and of course the spelling to a modern eye is crazy: sleepyng at least is quickly apparent. By the late eighteen hundreds both spelling and structure were the same as they are now. That’s why we can still easily read a writer like Dickens. Another old term is ‘cracker’, a derogatory term used for southern whites by the British by the 1760’s. What is the origin? Still working on that.

Then there is ‘spinning in his grave?” So evocative. But it is relatively new. The first use I can find is ‘turn in his grave’, by Thackeray in 1848.

The term ‘ne’er do well’ just turned up in a lyric by the band Incubus. It is of course a contraction of ‘never do well’. According to a blog post from the UK, Ne’er has been used in that shortened form since the 13th century, notably in the North of England and in Scotland. ‘Ne’er do well’ itself originated in Scotland and an early citation of it in print is found in the Scottish poet and playwright Allan Ramsay’s A collection of Scots proverbs, 1737.

How about mind your Ps and Qs, one of my mother’s favorite expressions. No one seems to know the origin of this one so I will list a few possibilities:

1. Mind your pints and quarts. This is suggested as deriving from the practice of chalking up a tally of drinks in English pubs (on the slate). Publicans had to make sure to mark up the quart drinks as distinct from the pint drinks.

2. Advice to printers’ apprentices to avoid confusing the backward-facing metal type lowercase Ps and Qs, or the same advice to children who were learning to write.

3. Mind your pea (jacket) and queue (wig). Pea jackets were short rough woollen overcoats, commonly worn by sailors in the 18th century. Perruques were full wigs worn by fashionable gentlemen. It is difficult to imagine the need for an expression to warn people to avoid confusing them.

4. Mind your pieds (feet) and queues (wigs). This is suggested to have been an instruction given by French dancing masters to their charges. It seems doubtful this began as a French expression.

5.  Another version of the ‘advice to children’ origin has it that ‘Ps and Qs’ derives from ‘mind your pleases and thank-yous”. OK, this sounds somewhat plausible.

So no one really knows where this one comes from but it is old enough to have been used in 1795.

Other terms I’m still working on: ‘she rules the roost.” That sounds agricultural and therefore old. How about ‘tar with the same brush.” That sounds like it comes fromt he days of tarring and feathering but I don’t know for sure. Another one I am curious about is ‘heads will roll’. From the days of the French Revolution perhaps. Stay tuned and when I find the origins I will report.


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