Beloved Phrases from the Past

When I was growing up there were a plethora of phrases that embodied the spirit of the moment.  Many of these “sayings”  had historical origins.

Other phrases I attributed to my parents and grandparents. These are some of those notable sayings both historical and home grown.

“Turn a blind eye” is often used to refer to a willful refusal to acknowledge a particular reality. This dates back to a legendary chapter in the career of the British naval hero Horatio Nelson. During the 1801 battle of Copenhagen, Nelson’s ships were pitted against a large Danish-Norwegian fleet.

When his more conservative superior officer flagged him to withdraw, the one-eyed Nelson supposedly brought his telescope to his bad eye and blithely proclaimed, “I really do not see the signal.” He went on to score a decisive victory.

Some historians have since dismissed Nelson’s famous quip as merely a battlefield myth, but the phrase “turn a blind eye” persists to this day.

The phrase “paint the town red” most likely owes its origin to one legendary night of drunkenness. In 1837, the Marquis of Waterford, a known lush and mischief maker, led a group of friends on a night of drinking through the town of Melton Mowbray. The bender culminated after Waterford and his fellow revelers knocked over flowerpots, pulled knockers off of doors, and broke the windows of some of the town’s buildings.

To top it off, the mob literally painted a tollgate, the doors of some of the homes and a swan statue with red paint. The Marquis and his pranksters later compensated Melton for the damages, but their drunken escapade has lived in infamy.

“By and Large” is another phrase that originated on the high seas… like “taken aback”, “loose cannon”, and “high and dry”.

As far back as the 16th century the word “large” was used to mean that a ship was sailing with the wind at its back. Meanwhile, the much less desirable “by” meant the vessel was traveling into the wind. Thus, for mariners, “by and large” referred to trawling the seas in any and all directions relative to the wind.

“Butter someone up” means to impress someone with flattery. The origin of this was a customary religious act in ancient India. The devout would throw butter balls at the statues of their gods to seek favor and forgiveness.

“Mad as a hatter” of course means to be crazy. Believe it or not this phrase did not originate from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 17th century France, poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury for the hat felt. The “Mad Hatter Disease” was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear, “mad”.

“It’s raining cats and dogs” is supposed to have originated in England in the 17th century. City streets were filthy and heavy rains would occasionally carry along dead animals. Richard Brome’s, The City Witt, 1652, has the line “It shall rain dogs and polecats”. Also, cats and dogs both have ancient associations with bad weather.

“A stitch in time saves nine” means it’s better to solve a problem right away then to let it fester to become a much bigger problem. It’s first recorded in a book from the year, 1723. Of course it is a sewing reference. The idea is that sewing up a small rip with one stitch means the tear is less likely to get bigger and need more stitches, such as nine stitches later on.

However, the Prime Minister of England, Boris Johnson said this phrase as he announced extra rules on things like pubs closing times in England.

Several other phrases my grandmother used were as follows:

      • Many hands make light work
      • Absence makes the heart grow fonder
      • Never look a gift horse in the mouth
      • People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks
      • Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
      • Early to bed and early to rise makes you happy, healthy, and wise
      • Any job worth doing is worth doing well
      • Birds of a feather flock together
      • You’re preaching to the choir
      • More than you can shake a stick at
      • It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans
      • Goodness gracious (my favorite)

It’s funny how I would take these phrases for granted when I was shorter. Now I look back nostalgically and associate certain people and situations with the blessed memories of a time long ago.

I guess time is relative as we proceed to the final curtain. Each memory from the past related to our family takes on a very special meaning. We were captivated by phrases, not always understanding the meaning but certainly appreciating the delivery.

I remember my grandmother washing apples from her tree with soap and water. Occasionally an apple would slip out of her hands and land on the floor. That’s when she would exclaim, “Goodness gracious”.

I miss that phrase coming from my sweet grandmother.  That moment lives today in infamy, though not in life.