Monday, February 25, 2013

Phrases We Love—Where'd They Come From?

We all love words, right? We wouldn't be doing this insanely wonderful and frustrating work if we didn't. So when we have moments that take us to the root of our word love, it can feel like kismet.

Some of the metaphorical phrases we use regularly just trip right off our tongues without us having a clue as to how they originally came about, or even what they mean in a literal sense, but we do know what they mean metaphorically. In fact, they've often become cliché, they're used so easily.

For example:
  • He was down at the heels.
  • She waited for the answer with bated breath.
  • Strewth! (yeah, no one actually says that any more, but those of you writing about medieval knights or Robin Hood have at least thought about putting it in your ms., admit it)

Down at the heels:  literally, when a person's shoe heels wear down . . . a visual sign that they haven't got the resources to get their shoes re-heeled or buy new ones (because, as a matter of pride, a person wouldn't be seen in public with worn out shoes if he could possibly help it—this was true in this country nearly everywhere a couple of generations ago, and still is in many places.) We use it metaphorically to mean poor or in a bad streak financially.

Bated breath:  this one was a puzzler to me in terms of both where it came from and what it literally means. Bated? Should it really be baited with an 'i?' And how can you bait breath, anyway? I just couldn't get the visual on that. I finally asked a British friend (they always know this stuff), and he said he was "quite sure it comes from the longer, traditional word, 'abated.' It was probably originally written with a hyphen, as in, 'bated." Ah, of course. Abated means stopped, so it's a way of saying she was so anxious or excited that she stopped breathing until she got the answer. That fits with what I know the phrase suggests.

Strewth! (I think the exclamation point is mandatory): an oath, often spoken as an exclamation of extreme disbelief or fear or outrage. I felt wonderfully enlightened when I found out it's a contraction of 'God's Truth!'  Heh.

Did you know where these phrases came from? And more importantly, do you have one or two of your own you'd be willing to share? I'd love to collect a whole list and publish it as a post, just for fun (and kismet).

12 comments:

  1. I like this, I learned something! thanks for sharing!

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    1. You're welcome, Fida, it's fun, isn't it?

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  2. I hadn't thought of it, but bated breath is a weird phrase. Thanks for sharing about them.

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    1. It really is, Natalie. But knowing where it came from makes it make sense, doesn't it?

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  3. I find the history behind our idioms fascinating. I found out about the gun related one when I did research on a prior novel, like "Lock, stock and barrel" and "flash in the pan" and "half-cocked" etc. It was pretty neat.

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    1. Those are great, Lydia. I never connected them with guns, but when you point it out, it's obvious (except for "flash in the pan"--that one's not obvious to me, butI can imagine it as a gunshot phrase). Thanks!

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  4. I had no idea, this is really interesting! I would have guessed the first one to mean he was an excellent horseman. When riding it's vital to keep your heels down. Learning about old phrases like this is something I love. It can really enrich writing too!

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    1. It's fun, isn't it, Heather? I love your guess on down at the heel, though. I didn't know that about riding. Really interesting!

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  5. These are fabulous Linda. I do have one. Where did "Piss Poor" come from?

    They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot.

    And then once it was full it was taken and sold to the tannery...

    if you had to do this to survive you were "Piss Poor".
    But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn't even afford to buy a pot...

    They "didn't have a pot to piss in" and were the lowest of the low.

    Live from 36.000 feet via Wifi!

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    1. That's amazing info, Karlene. I thought that was just some low-level foul language--had no idea it came from actual historical description! Thanks! (Awesome that you have wifi on your flight!)

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  6. HI, Linda,

    Fun post. Such interesting information. Words and phrases are truly fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Michael! Hope all's going well with you. (Did you hear your ears burning the other day? I was telling a designer friend of mine about your idea to put casters on the legs of my desk so I could move it easily to get up close to my whiteboard :) )

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