Fun with words/phrases

This part of my blog will be all about words and phrases. Just for fun - and mainly for me. But you might enjoy them, too!


Words we grow up with, whether we are aware of them or not, can sometimes reflect the ethic links to our past ancestors. I grew up in a German Galician, Irish, English household. Here are three words that show my a bit about my ethnic background.

1) Babushka: (Polish) head scarf - and a word I have used all my life. We always wore headscarves winter and summer when it was windy or cold and we always called them babushkas. Only recently did I discover that this word is a Polish/Russian word. My father's family moved from Italy, to Germany - intermarried with Germans (and spoke only German). Around 1790 they moved to Galicia which the Austrian Gov't owned. They were given free land to help develop poor area of what is now called Poland, but was known at that time as Galicia. So using this Polish word, babushka, in our family makes sense!

2) Malarkey: (Irish) Exaggerated words, insincere words  - my mother used to say some people were full of malarkey - and we knew she meant they were full of nonsense and exaggeration. I just recently found out that my mother's mother was Irish and her great-grandfather moved from County Louth to England during the potato famine! So that fits, too.

3) Lambast or Lambaste: (English) My mother used to warn us when we were acting up, that if we didn't stop being naughty she'd lambaste us. I knew without being told, it meant a spanking. I looked up the origin and some people believe that, as the word baste means to cover a roasting piece of meat (like a leg of lamb) with hot fat  - that this could the meaning of lambast/e. However, in 16th and 17th C England, "to lam" someone meant to beat them and "to bast/e" someone also meant to beat them. One of those is clearly redundant! But either way, I don't recall my mother ever "lamb-basting" us!



I'm starting out "phrases" with a post that I put up not long ago about phrases  that interested me because I've used these phrases many times, and know their "meaning" but not their origins.


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 palus. A 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.

Part Two of Phrases and Origins

Here are three more common phrases we use, but rarely know their actualorigins. All, coincidentally, begin with the letter "T"!

Three sheets to the wind - this phrase is used to mean that someone is thoroughly drunk. It is a seafaring expression, but oddly enough, the word sheets does not refer to the sails, as you might imagine.

We landlubbers might expect that they are, indeed, the sails. They are, in fact, ropes -- or sometimes chains. These ropes (also called lines) are attached to the lower corners of the sails, to hold them in place.

HMS Unicorn by Harold Wyllie, 1851-1931

Coiled sheets or lines.

The sheets in the photo above are used to control the movable corners of the sails.

The chain running diagonally up and right from the bottom-left of the photo below to is the fore-lower-topsail sheet. Some of the sheets or lines to bigger sails are made of chain to handle the heavier loads.

E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897 explains where the drunkenness reference comes from in this phrase in his "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898:"

“Unsteady from over-drinking, as a ship when its sheets are in the wind. The sail of a ship is fastened at one of the bottom corners by a rope called a “tack;” the other corner is left more or less free as the rope called a “sheet” is disposed; if quite free, the sheet is said to be “in the wind,” and the sail flaps and flutters without restraint. If all the three sails were so loosened, the ship would “reel and stagger like a drunken man.”

His example used in fiction is: "Captain Cuttle looking, candle in hand, at Bunsby more attentively, perceived that he was three sheets to the wind, or, in plain words drunk.” Domeby and Son, Charles Dickens

The phrase today is usually spoken of as 'three sheets to the wind', you can see in the example above and below, that the original was, in fact, 'three sheets in the wind'.

A quote from Pierce Egan's Real Life in London, 1821: "Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind."

It appears that sailors at that time had a sliding scale of drunkenness; three sheets was the blind drunk stage; tipsy was just 'one sheet in the wind', or 'a sheet in the wind's eye'. An example appears in the novel The Fisher's Daughter, by Catherine Ward, 1824:

"Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr. Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure."

There was probably some reference to "two sheets in the wind", but I suspect if if a sailor was now breathalyzed at two sheets, he'd be fined for drunk driving!

Robert Louis Stevenson had Long John Silver use a form of the phrase to plead "not guilty" of drunkenness to Captain Smollett. Silver says: "Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind's eye. But I'll tell you I was sober..."

To a "T" - To say something is "to a T" means that something is exactly or precisely so. That it is perfectly... 'to a "T"'.

A much older and obsolete phrase itself: down to the least particular.

So what is the origin of this phrase?

It is pretty certain that "to a T" did not originate with the drinking of tea, or using a tee in golfing, or wearing a t-shirt.

The one thing that most experts on phrase origins seem to agree on, is that "To a T" involves the letter T -- as in T being the first letter of a word. And the word they seem to agree on is the word "tittle". Really!

What?? Yes, because "tittle" was in use in exactly the same sense - for at least a hundred years before "to a T" appeared.

In 1607, in a play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, called Woman Hater, a characters says, "I'll quote him to a tittle". Meaning he will quote him exactly as he spoke.

One could argue that "to a T" nowadays often refers to how clothes fit as in ... That dress fits you "to a T".

So, if you are still focused on 'T-shirt', a kind of casual "shirt" of American origin (which refers to the shape of the garment in question) you would be wrong. At first sight, this seems to be a rather appealing explanation. However, it is important to remember that t-shirts are a 20th C invention and "to a T" had being used for at least 200 years by then.

'T-square' has been brought up as an alternative, because it is a precise instrument, but there is no evidence that links it to the phrase, according to the experts.

It is thought that the phrase "to a T" is derived from the word tittle because long before "to a t" became popular, the phrase "to a tittle" was used for exactly the same meaning.

The phrase "to dot one's i's and cross one's t's refers back to this phrase.

So we're back to tittle. And what exactly is a tittle?

A tittle is a small distinguishing mark, such as a diacritic or the dot on a lowercase i or j. A tittle is a small stroke or point in writing or printing, and is now best remembered via the term jot or tittle.

Jot" and "tittle" continued to be used in the 16th century English Bible translations (beginning with William Tyndale in the 1520s). Many still know these terms from the King James (1611) translation -- "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."

So, based on this Biblical "tittle," meaning to focus on tiny details, people began to use the expression "to a tittle," and other later variations of it, to refer to something done very precisely (that is 'to the smallest detail').

So while there is no absolute proof the circumstantial case, 'to a tittle's' derivation would probably stand up in court as 'beyond a reasonable doubt'.

Take it with a Grain of Salt - To take a statement with 'a grain of salt' or 'a pinch of salt' means to accept that statement, knowing, also, that you must maintain a degree of skepticism about its truth.

Here are a couple of examples of how it's used:

"Remember to take everything he says with a grain of salt. He doesn't always tell the truth."

"I could tell they took our explanation with a pinch of salt. I was pretty sure they didn't believe us."


In ancient times, salt was a rare and very expensive commodity. And it was thought to have magical powers. It was thrown over the shoulder for good luck, for example, and was also used as a seasoning. Even more interesting, they sprinkled salt on foods that they thought might be poisoned.

f you are interested in food history, it is almost impossible to do it without hearing about Pliny the Elder, repeatedly. Pliny is to the history of food what a favourite spice or herb is to your best culinary creations ... essential.

Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, 77 A.D shows clearly that Pliny believed that salt could be an antidote to poison. Threats of poison were to be taken "with a grain of salt," and for some reason were considered less of a worry!

From Naturalis Historia:
"After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day."

The Roman general, Pompey (48 BC) believed he could make himself immune to poison by swallowing small amounts of different poisons, and he did this with a grain of salt to help him swallow the poison.It is believed the salt was not the antidote, but was taken merely to assist in swallowing the poison. Clearly, by then, he did not believe the salt would save him from poisoning.

Now here's a catch! The Latin word salis means both "salt" and "wit," so that the Latin phrase "cum grano salis" could be translated as both "with a grain of salt" and "with a grain (small amount) of wit." That throws a bit of a wrench into it, doesn't it?? But I believe, as do the pundits, that 'take it with a grain of salt'is the most likely one.
Oops! Spilling salt is unlucky. I wonder why??


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