Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How can a doornail be dead?
I've always been fascinated by phrases that we use in everyday language, yet often most of us don't their origin, despite knowing what we mean when we say them.  

Here are a few phrases I have wondered about, beginning with that - er - dead doornail...

Dead as a doornail: Simply means dead, or of no use whatsoever. Of course, a doornail can't be dead, it's not alive in the first place. :-) But it can become useless.

"Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail." A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

And Shakespeare gave these lines to the rebel leader Jack Cade in King Henry VI, Part 2, 1592:

"Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more."

The Origin:

Not surprisingly, it has to do with nails in doors ...

As early as 1350 this term was in use - to mean absolute uselessness.

There are two corresponding origins to this phrase:
The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, quotes a researcher who  says that if you hammer a nail through a piece of timber and then flatten the end over on the inside so it can’t be removed again (a technique called clinching), [Mmm ... is that where "clinching a deal" comes from? But I digress!] and the nail is said to be dead, because you can’t use it again.
Doornails would very probably have been set in this way to give extra strength to the nail and also to the slated wood in the door in the years before screws were available. So they were "dead" because they’d been clinched and could not be used again.
Another source, claims that before electricity, door knockers were used to let people know you had arrived. If people were busy in other places in the house, it would often take more than a few hard whacks on the knocker to get their attention.  So the nails holding the knocker came in for a lot of punishment and would fall out on the ground. It would be natural to then say the life had been pounded out of the doornails and nothing could be deader.

I suspect the first one is closest to the origin....


Left-handed compliment: Being a "sinister" that is, left-handed, I always knew this phrase meant an insult pretending to be a compliment. 

For example:

"To be hated cordially, is only a left handed compliment." Herman Melville.


You're smarter than you look."
You drive very well, for a woman."
I didn't recognize you; you look so good."

These are all left-handed compliments.

The Origin:

In medieval times, beauty and charm were not limited to the upper classes, and since the beginning of civilization high-born men had been falling in love with women from lower classes.

Apparently the medieval Eastern Europeans - the Germans were first - found a solution to a high born man's wish to marry a woman beneath him. If a blue blood prince wished to marry a commoner, a special wedding ceremony was performed. And not to the advantage of the woman....

This ritual was distinguished from the usual one, by the fact that the groom gave his bride his left hand rather than his right during the ceremony. To the casual observer it might have seemed as usual, but a left handed marriage  - called a morganatic (left handed) marriage - was, in fact, a marriage in name only. Neither the new wife or any children from her womb could ever gain her "husband's" rank or his property. 

Of course, few wives were happy with this lower status and legal issues were frequently being dealt with. So a lot publicity from these marriages created the concept that "an appearance" of deception was "left-handed". After the 16th C. the left-handed ceremony was seldom performed. Not surprisingly...

But it had made a lasting impression: It resulted in the view that an insult which masquerades as praise is called a left-handed compliment.

I studied this painting in art school. It is by Jan Van Eyke painted in 1434 and it appears to me (and to some actual experts ;-) to be a left handed marriage. It is called "The Arnolfini Painting" or sometimes "Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife."

The man is grasping the woman's right hand with his left which is the basis for the controversy. So "my" experts argue that if this painting does, indeed, show a marriage ceremony, then the use of the left hand points to the marriage being morganatic. Others argue that if this is indeed a painting of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami, (no one knows for certain it appears) they were probably, but not certainly, of equal rank. But as that is not a certainty, this painting represents what "might" be what a left-handed ceremony looked like. Historians - they never agree ...


Beyond the pale:


"I look upon you, sir, as a man who has placed himself beyond the pale of society, by his most audacious, disgraceful, and abominable public conduct.
Mr Pott to Mr Slurk in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, 1837.
But what is a pale, or what is going beyond a pale?
Just to point this out, the word pale in this phrase or idiom has nothing to do with a pail, or with a lighter tone of a colour. So where does the word pale fit into it?

The Origin:
The word pale in this phrase actually refers to a stake in the ground or a row of stakes and comes from the Latin word palusA row of pales becomes a barrier of stakes; a palisade or a fence. (Does this have anything to do with the word impaled - as in "He took his sharpened stick and impaled him with it."? Digressing again....) Some believe the word "pole" comes from pale also.

This word pale in this context has been around in England since the 14th century but by the 15th century, pale took on a deeper political meaning, including a defence, a safeguard, a barrier, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go.

The term pale was used to describe other enclosures of territory inside countries controlled by invaders. For example, the English pale in France in the fourteenth century was Calais, the last English possession in that country. Then there was the Russian Pale, between 1791 and the Revolution of 1917, when there were specified areas in which Russian Jews were required to live.

In Ireland, the word pale also appears to mean a deep ditch (which was never finished and I'm not sure if it has a row of pales that went on for miles - I doubt it!) that was to be a demarcation line separating those areas of Ireland taken over by the English. For an Irish person (from outside the pale) to attempt to go beyond The Pale and enter the area controlled by the English was forbidden.



I find the plaque above rather confusing to read. It sounds as if Dublin and the other counties mentioned were not controlled by the British. But that area was, in fact, the part of the country which England directly controlled — it boundaries changed now and again, but it was always an area of several counties centred around Dublin - including County Louth. My Irish great-grandfather was born in Louth, Ireland in the early 1800's. (Only of interest to me, of course!) The first mention of the Irish Pale is in a document of 1446–7.