I’ve always been fascinated by colorful phrases and colloquial sayings from around America and Great Britain, where they came from and why — if that’s ascertainable.
I was watching the movie “Zulu” for a probable record number of times (it’s near the very top of my all-time favorite movies list) and I was struck by the number of colorful sayings from that movie.
Things like an 1879 Welsh soldier saying, “stuff me with green apples” or “drunk as a lord” jumped off the screen as I wondered, once again, how sayings like these come about, and how they weave their way in and out of everyday speech.
Now since England was our sovereign up until the American Revolution, its no wonder we kind of continued the list of seemingly endless colorful expressions.
I went about looking up sometimes older sayings, and was surprised that there has been a fair amount of research into this area of our English language.
The first I researched was drunk as a lord because I’ve heard that one, even from my parents when I was growing up. I found the saying goes back to the mid-1600s and is said to be the fact that noblemen drank more than commoners — because they could afford to. Now that makes sense when you think about it.
Then there’s a sight for sore eyes.
That one is pretty descriptive and I’ve probably heard it more than just about any old British saying. I found in research that the expression alludes to seeing something you have been dreaming about for a while, or could be just about anything from seeing a beautiful woman to reacting to viewing a nice, cold beer on a really hot day.
Or maybe seeing your favorite chocolate bar while standing in line at a grocery checkout. The possibilities are endless.
My mom had a number of colorful sayings she used regularly, and I didn’t even realize it at the time. I just thought that was the way everybody talked.
Sick as a dog was perhaps her favorite, and I could relate to that one because I remember being sick as a dog on a fair number of occasions. It apparently comes from the early 1700s, when it was common to compare undesirable things to dogs.
Now people didn’t dislike dogs, it was because some diseases like bubonic plague were spread by fleas on animals like rats, birds and dogs. Funny how things come about that creep into our language.
If you are going to see a man about a dog, you are saying you want to leave the company you are in but don’t really want to give the exact reason.
Maybe you wanted to just leave and go to a pub (we are talking England now, not a beer joint here on these shores), or if you need to go to visit the bathroom, you say, “I need to see a man about a dog.” That is one of my favorites, and I’ve actually used it a time or two over the years.
Or the saying “pardon my French.”
The expression originated in the 1800s and was used literally. When English people used French expressions in a conversation, they often would apologize for it because the listener to the conversation wasn’t familiar with the French language. Today, it’s used to apologize for using an off-color or vulgar choice of words in mixed company.
“Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.”
That comes from the Bible and Ecclesiastes 10:20, and refers to the old expression “a little bird told me,” which means to receive some secret information or gossip.
When you spend a penny in the British Isles, you are going to the bathroom — a very polite saying so as not to be overly graphic. It came about from the first modern pay toilets in 1800s London, when there was a door lock on public facilities and it required a penny to be inserted before a person could enter. It fell out of use as a general term when the price of using the lavatory went up to 2 pennies.
Again, funny how things are inserted into the English language.
When you eat humble pie, you are using an expression from 1300s Great Britain, whereby the nobility feasting on game — especially deer — would leave the heart, liver and entrails for the humble servants.
They were known as numbles, which by the 1400s had become ‘umbles. These leftovers were made into ‘umble pies for them to eat.
Stuff me with green apples if I know where some of America’s colorful expressions come from!
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Visit his column blog at www.tinyurl.com/Column-Blog