Etymology fascinates me, particularly when the passage of time twists the original meaning of a word or phrase into something else entirely. There are some common expressions with such wacky origins that even if you tried to make an educated guess, you’d probably be barking up the wrong tree. (See what I did there? No prizes for guessing this one, though. As you’d expect, it comes from hunting dogs mistakenly chasing their prey up a tree.)
Here are five of the most interesting and most bizarre idiom origins!
- He’s turning a blind eye.
When you deliberately ignore a fact or a situation, you turn a blind eye. British Naval hero Admiral Nelson is to blame for this one. Early in his naval career, Nelson was blinded in one eye. During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, Nelson was ordered by British forces to stop attacking Danish ships. The order was given by way of signal flags. Nelson lifted the telescope to his blind eye and said, “I do not see the signal!” in effect deliberately ignoring his orders so he could continue attacking.
As it happened, Nelson was right and won the battle, but the phrase has since acquired negative connotations. In other words, turning a blind eye is generally taken to mean ignoring something that you really shouldn’t.
- I spoke first to break the ice.
You break the ice by saying or doing something to initiate a conversation that might’ve been awkward otherwise. It’s often used in the context of dating, when two people are getting to know each other. This one can be traced back to when ships were the only means of transportation and trade, and would sometimes get stuck during the winter due to ice formation. The receiving country would send small ships out to clear the way for the trade ships by—you guessed it—breaking the ice.
- She’s totally buttering him up.
This is when you impress or flatter someone excessively in the hopes of receiving special favours, e.g. you butter up the boss to win a promotion. This comes from a religious custom in ancient India, when the devout would throw balls of butter at statues of their gods to ask for favour and forgiveness.
- He’s as mad as a hatter.
Lots of people think this expression comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In fact it originates from much earlier. In 17th-century France, mercury was used in the making of hats, leading to mercury poisoning, which caused hat-wearers to tremble and appear insane. It therefore became known as the “Mad Hatter’s Disease”. Lewis Carroll actually based the character of the Mad Hatter on the phrase “mad as a hatter”, rather than the other way round.
- When I asked her out, she gave me the cold shoulder.
This is my favourite. Giving someone the cold shoulder means being unwelcoming, antisocial or dismissive towards them. You might think this originates from a gesture involving your own shoulder. Nope. This comes from a peculiar custom in medieval England, whereby a host would give their guest a cold piece of beef, pork or mutton shoulder when they felt it was time for the guest to leave. It was considered a polite way of saying, “Go home now, please.” Doesn’t sound very polite to me—no doubt that’s why it means the opposite today!
So… how many of those did you guess?
Have a read of my previous Weird Words blog to find out the unusual origins of the idiom “clutching at straws”. Last month’s Weird Words also looked at etymology, including the unguessable origins of “soccer” and “tragedy”.
More Weird Words next month!