The Origins Of Famous British Phrases
Every year the English celebrate April 23rd as their national day...
...but did you know that it was also an important day for one of England’s most beloved sons?
We refer, of course, to the Bard himself, Will Shakespeare. Because this year that date marks the 400th anniversary of his death.
And he was born in April too...26th April 1564 to be precise, a year before this famous picture was painted by Pieter Bruegel!
So appropriately, there are celebrations taking place all over the country to mark the great day, from a special birthday procession at his Stratford-upon-Avon birthplace to an Anniversary Gala concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank. Shakespeare400.org is the online stage to find out what you need to about all of the special productions, tours, talks and music throughout the country.
Now many of us (of a certain age) will remember struggling to understand Shakespeare's seemingly unfathomable English at school (now we get it of course) and many young students will no doubt still be wondering why there seems to be no escaping the dreaded Bard! Well, the fact of the matter is that his influence on the English language has been extremely far reaching and even those who claim that they "don't do Shakespeare" often find themselves quoting him in daily life without ever realising it.
Have you ever been "in a pickle" or had "too much of a good thing"? Perhaps someone has "eaten (you) out of house and home" or had you "in stitches" after having told a brilliant joke?
Well, those are just a handful of the plethora of well-used expressions, sayings and now commonplace words that have come to us courtesy of Will Shakespeare, seen here with ruff!
Let’s take a peek at a few more shall we?
"For goodness sake" - Henry VIII
"Neither here not there" - Othello
"Mum's the word" - Henry VI, Part II
"Eaten out of house and home" - Henry IV, Part II
"Rant" - Hamlet
"Knock knock! Who's there?" - Macbeth
"With bated breath" - The merchant of Venice
"A wild goose chase" - Romeo and Juliet
"Too much of a good thing" - As You like It
"A heart of gold" - Henry V
"What the Dickens" - The Merry Wives of Windsor
"Puking" - As You like It
"Dead as a doornail" - Henry VI, Part II
"Foregone conclusion" – Othello
"Addiction" – Othello
"Faint-hearted" - Henry VI, Part I
"Send him packing" - Henry IV
"Vanish into thin air" – Othello
"My own flesh and blood" – Hamlet
"The truth will out" - The Merchant of Venice
"There's method in my madness" – Hamlet
"Wear your heart on your sleeve" – Othello
"Go full circle" - King Lear
"All of a sudden" - The Taming of the Shrew
"Come what may" - Macbeth
Wow! Who knew – what a man, and what an influence!
It’s not only the greatness of Shakespeare that has proved so significant in enriching the English language however, so let’s continue on with the theme of the origination of strange English things, and investigate slightly ‘further afield’.
And let’s do that by looking at some more strange sayings whose origins are a ‘tad’ more difficult to guess. Indeed, some English expressions are just so crazy and unusual that it’s virtually impossible to guess where on earth they originated from — unless you know the history…and now you’re going to be ‘let in on the secrets’.
Oh, hard cheese!
Current meaning: Bad luck!
Origin: This slang term is now becoming rather archaic although it is still used. It dates from the early 19th century where it was used as a general indication of unsatisfactoriness, but today it's at its most useful (and pertinent) when commiserating with the unfortunates known as the Cooper's Hill cheese-chasers of Gloucestershire (above)!
To bite the bullet
Current meaning: To accept something difficult or unpleasant
Origin: ‘In the olden days’, when doctors were short on anesthesia (or time) during a battle, they would ask the patient to bite down on a bullet to distract them from the pain. The first recorded use of the phrase was in 1891 in Kipling’s The Light that Failed.
Mad as a hatter
Current meaning: To be completely barmy/barking/crazy
Origin: No, actually…you didn’t already know this one, because it didn’t originate from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland! In 17th century France, poisoning occurred amongst 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.”
To turn a blind eye
Modern meaning: To ignore situations, facts, or reality
Origin: The great British Naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, only had one good eye and once, when younger and British commanders signaled for him to stop attacking a fleet of Danish ships, he held up a telescope to his blind eye and said, “I see no signal.” He attacked nevertheless, and was famously victorious.
To be caught red-handed
Modern meaning: To be caught in the act of doing something wrong
Origin: This originates from an ancient English law that ordered any person to be punished for butchering an animal that wasn’t his own. The only way the person could be convicted is if he was caught with the animal’s blood still on his hands.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
Modern meaning: Don’t get rid of valuable things along with the unnecessary ones.
Origin: You won’t believe this one! In the early 1500’s, people only bathed about once a year. Not only that, but many people also bathed in the same water without changing it! The adult males would bath first, then the females, leaving the children and babies to go last. By the time the babies got in, the water was clouded with filth. The poor mothers had to take extra care that their babies were not thrown out with the bathwater.
To give someone the cold shoulder
New meaning: Being unwelcoming or anti-social toward someone.
Origin: In medieval England, it was customary to give a guest a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of mutton, pork, or beef chop when the host felt it was time for the guest to leave. This was a polite way to communicate, “You may leave, now.” Wow, I’ll get my coat!
An Englishman’s home is his castle
New meaning: Your home is your refuge
Origin: From at least the 17th century on it’s been a legal precept in England that no one may enter a home without a clear invitation so that whatever the size of your house (or hovel!) it became your impenetrable ‘castle’.
So there we go! Totes amazeballs, as we now say!
And if you’re waiting "with baited breathe" to book a trip to England then hopefully it’s already a "foregone conclusion" that you’ll succeed! "The truth will" out as soon as you arrive and you’ll find that "there’s method in your madness".
Ok, actually, we don’t all talk in expression form all the time, you’ll be relieved to hear and some of us are also moderately pleasant as well! Nevermind…whether you’re already a fan or if you just have a craving for more English Eccentricity then how about sampling some of our crazy traditions at first hand?
Each year throughout the country, the English celebrate in some truly weird and wonderful ways that you just wouldn’t believe. Find out more in my blog on our top 5 Weird Traditions!
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