Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 3

The Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases series is 3 blogs into its 10 part series. This historical linguist journey has allowed us to find out the history behind some of the most interesting idioms and kooky colloquial phrases that we use in the United States. With parts 1 and 2 already behind us, in part 3 we will find out the history behind: “Clear as a bell”, “Cut from the same cloth”, “I’ll be dog gone”, “Getting a leg up”, “Horse of a different color”, and “Cat got your tongue”.



sonora-phonograph-feb-1920-ottawa-citizen

“Clear as a bell”

Origin: In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare said that “He hath a heart as sound as a bell, and his tongue is the clapper…,” so the comparison and utilization of the sound of bells in spoken and written literature has a long history. Bells have been found by archaeologists in sites dating back to the 3rd millennium BC throughout China, so to say that the bell has been around for a long time is an understatement. The bells for  the early Chinese workers were used to signify times of work and for religious reasons. Christians also use bells atop their churches and bells of all kinds are known to be large and loud. The sound can be heard for great distances and a single bell is distinct and unmistakeable. Before electric sirens and amplifiers, bells were used to signal people of events because the bell could be heard over the great distances. By 1910, phonographs were all the rage. Advertising was important to these companies to differentiate themselves from others; and the Sonora Chime Company chose to ring out above the rest with the slogan: “Clear as a Bell”.

Meaning: It is easily understood.



“Cut from the Same Cloth”

Origin: My wife is an extremely talented woman and is great at sewing and crocheting; so I know that she will love to hear where that the term “cut from the same cloth” really did come from sewing. The idiom comes from a tailor or seamstress who is making a jacket and trouser set. The two should be cut from the same skein of fabric to ensure that the two pieces will match perfectly, since fabric batches differ. Despite the pattern, a skein of fabric or yarn will differ after many runs because a color may be brighter or lighter in a future batch….therefore something that is truly alike will be ‘cut from the same cloth’.

Meaning: Individuals who are very similar in very specific ways.



“I’ll be doggone”

Origin: The etymology for the expression ‘doggone it’ or ‘I’ll be doggone’ is a euphemism for the vile adjective and noun combo: God d*mn. I know. I didn’t even want to type that because it hurts my ears to even hear it but in the 1800s (and even earlier in Scotland), doggone began as a clean deformation of the profane curse which means to be d*mn or to be d*mned (depending on the usage). The expression was written as both, “dog gone” and “dog on” throughout most of the 19th century and could be said either way…depending on where you are in the country.

Meaning: To d*mn or be d*mned.



“Getting a leg up”

Origin: It’s not what you think. When you first hear someone say ‘getting a leg up’, the 12 year old inside of you thinks that someone is talking about a male dog marking his territory. You just pictured it in your mind didn’t you? But you’d be wrong in this case. The idiom ‘getting a leg up’ actually derives from horseback riding. Specifically in the case of an equestrian receiving help to mount their horse. The helper in this case would create a foothold with their hands and would help the equestrian ‘get their leg up’ over the horse. I would much rather picture this…than image a dog peeing.

Meaning: To receive a boost or an advantage in position



“Horse of a different color”

Origin: Here we find ourselves talking about everyone’s favorite equine: the horse but this phrase is a horse of a different color. That worked out perfectly. The idiom ‘horse of a different color’ originated during Medieval times. During medieval tournaments, specifically jousting, the riders rode different colored horses in the races. This would allow the spectators to be able to properly differentiate which rider they were pulling for. Historical documents have confirmed that gambling at medieval tournaments was a favorite pastime and historians have figured that the idiom originated with someone being told that the ‘horse of a different color’ was victorious. Sounds logical but we turn to Shakespeare again to confirm the idiom’s antique heritage. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Maria says to Sir Andrew, “My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that colour.” This statement means that the expression was established far before 1601.

Meaning: Another matter entirely.



“Cat got your tongue?”

Origin: I have chosen to briefly discuss the idiom “Has the cat got your tongue?” despite there not being any direct link to any specific historical event or piece of literature. The idiom is however a direct correlation to two possible scenarios. The first scenario would be that the flog from the cat-o’-nine-tails was so painful that it rendered the receiver unable to speak for long periods of time. The other possible scenario would be that in ancient Egypt, liars and blasphemers would be tortured and have their tongues cut out. The tongue would then be fed to the cats. Two definite possible scenarios that I can neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of.

Meaning: A question to someone who is at a loss for words.



Image: Sonora Chime Company “Caprice” advertisement, fair use.

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