The dialect, idioms and colloquial phrasesIn part one of our ten part series (Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 1), we learned the history of some interesting idioms and colloquial phrases. In Part 2 of our series we will be covering the history behind “Strike while the iron is hot”, “Don’ t throw the baby out with the bath water”, “Down to the Wire”, “Three Sheets to the Wind”, “Down in the dumps”, and “You get the Drift”.
“Strike while the iron is hot” –
Origin: The science of metallurgy has been around for thousands of years but certain terms related to this seemingly lost art have been lost throughout the years. To “strike while the iron is hot” is a term that is used heavily in our modern lexicon but few realize that the idiom is directly alluding to a metallurgy practice. A blacksmith or farrier would use a forge (a heater specialized in heating up metal) and upon heating up the piece of metal, would use specialized hammers and tools to shape the metal. If the blacksmith or farrier doesn’t strike while the piece was hot, then the metal would cool (thusly leading to it hardening) and it is impossible to shape the piece until it is heated up again.
Meaning: Take your opportunities when they arise.
“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Origin: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” is a phrase that is not commonly used but we all have heard it. The obscure reference to throwing a baby out with the bathwater is an idiomatic expression derived from a bathing process many years ago where the head or Lord of the household would bathe first, followed by other men, then the lady of the house and other women, then the children, followed lastly by the baby. By the end of the bathing time, the water would be so dirty that a baby could be unseen and could be accidently ‘tossed out with the bathwater’. The practice sounds disgusting but in the 1500s, their personal hygiene practices were vastly different than our current practices. The idiom is taken from a German proverb and the earliest record of the phrase ‘throw the baby out in the bathwater was written by Thomas Murner in 1512. In his book Narrenbeschwörung (the Appeal to Fools or directly translated as the “Fool Incantation”), there is a woodcut illustration of a woman tossing a baby out with the bath water. The very common German catchphrase survived some German’s immigration to America and I guess the phrase just never left us.
Meaning: Don’t eliminate the good while trying to expel the bad.
“Down to the wire” –
Origin: The idiom “down to the wire” actually has nothing to do with electricity as I always thought it did. I figured that it had something to do with that red wire that the bomb squad guy always had to cut. That that scenario of having something be ‘down to the wire’ was actually not the origin. The origin of the idiom was actually from the early 19th century. In official horse races, the judges would string a small wire across the track (just above the finish line) to help them to visually determine which horse won the race.
Meaning: Waiting until the last minute to do something.
“Three sheets to the wind” –
Origin: We’ve all heard someone describe an extremely drunk person as being ‘three sheets to the wind’ but what exactly are they referring to? Well strangely enough the idiom is derived from sailing ships. The ‘sheet’ that they are referring to is the nautical term for the rope that controls the trim of sail. A sail is known to be ‘sheeted to the wind’ when it is set to backfill (which in nautical terminology means that it is set to the opposite side of the ship from normal use). This is bad thing. In a major storm when a ship is ‘hove to’, the helm is lashed to windward and the sails are sheeted to the windward side of the ship (aka sheeted to the wind). As the storm gets stronger, the larger ships that would have three sails, would be rock in the ocean pretty badly because it would have to be sitting sideways in the wind. The wind would be rocking it back and forth and would be in constant danger. Are you seeing the correlation yet? When a person is completely drunk; wildly rolling from side to side and not able to control themselves they are just like a ship during a storm…three sheets to the wind.
Meaning: Completely drunk.
“Down in the Dumps” –
Origin: In our modern vernacular, a dump is a place that we go and ‘dump’ our trash; but in medieval times, the term ‘the dumps’ was not actually in reference to a place. The dumps was a commonplace expression that meant sadness and depression. Everyone from Shakespeare to Henry More have used the expression in their writing; but that still doesn’t answer the question as to how the word ‘dumps’ came to mean depression. The word Dumps has two options for its past. The first option is that of a reference to a tale of King from Egypt who built a pyramid but died of sadness. And his name? Dumpos. This explanation is highly doubtful because this king did not actually exist and only is known through fables. The other explanation would be that England natives of that time had an extremely dense, sad looking pudding called Dumplin. So either explanation could work but there is no definitive story to make either definite.
Meaning: To be unhappy; depressed.
“You get the drift” –
Origin: Since the early 1500s, the word drift has also meant purport. If you’re still not clear, the word purport means for something to appear, claim to be something or the substance of something. So the word drift meant for something to be apparent or to appear. The colloquial use of getting of catching someone’s drift is an indication for the reader or listener to not just take what is being read or heard at face value and to use inference to better understand. The term originated in a boating and to ‘catch the drift’ means for other boats to not reprieve the direction of the current, thusly they are ‘catching the drift’.
Meaning: “If you know what I mean”
Narrenbeschworung (Appeal to Fools) by Thomas Murner, 1512, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=689179