Phrases Shakespeare Never Heard

There are many phrases we use in English on a regular basis that don’t have a direct translation into our other working languages and we may not even know how they became part of the English language to fathom a meaning. I have chosen a few to highlight in order to enrich our understanding of how these terms came to be.

The first one is one that I ran across a few days ago when I saw a play by that name.  It is “top drawer”.  I intuited that it meant something that is the best, the pick of the crop.  It can mean that, but it goes beyond, having social implications.  Someone that is top drawer is someone that is acknowledged to be the crème de la crème in society, which is exactly what it meant in the play in question.  It came into being because the social elite used to put their important papers and possessions in the top drawer of their dresser.

Then there are sayings like “it cost an arm and a leg”(when something  is very pricey), you “have a chip on your shoulder”(you are holding a grudge and making no bones about it –or not leaving any room for doubt), and “it doesn’t cut the mustard” (something doesn’t meet expectations). The first one seems to have been popularized during WWII when many soldiers paid the high price of war by forfeiting a limb. The second apparently rose from a local custom in the U.S. in the early 19th century, where boys wanting to fight would dare others to physically knock a chip of wood from their shoulder to instigate a fight. Cutting the mustard was easier to envisage because of references in the Bible as to how minute the seed is, and hence difficult to cut.

“You’re barking up the wrong tree” (you’re mistaken), originated from America’s English ancestry, in which hunting was prominent. At times hounds would apparently chase their quarry up a tree and start barking at the base of the wrong one.  The phrase “quick and dirty fix” (is for when something solves  a problem but not in the best way). It appears to have come about in the 20th century in an environment related to mechanics or computers.

A word I often use myself  is “upshot” (result). What was the upshot of the discussion? It made it into our vocabulary through the field of sports.  It is the name of the last shot in an archery match. One of my favorites, although very colloquial, is “he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed” (he’s not the brightest person around).

When life does not seem to offer any viable options, we have come up with idioms such as the more antiquated “you’ve put me between the devil and the deep blue sea”, or “between a rock and a hard place”.  The first is easy to figure, either we will be in the devil’s hands or at the bottom of the sea.  The second, interestingly enough, arose after a union employment conflict in the US, where the miners involved were given the choice of working for vey low wages, or losing their job altogether.

I would love to hear some of your picks for a future continuation to this article, or about similar interesting phrases that have become mainstream in other languages.

No Comments
  • Arkady
    Posted at 12:54h, 08 November Reply

    On the same topic: For those of you who are not familiar with this site: http://www.etymonline.com/
    I know I use it a lot

    I have a great respect for Douglas Harper for putting such a dictionary together and also for venturing into such an obscure, politically treacherous but fascinating topic as this: http://www.slavenorth.com/

  • Rosemary Dann
    Posted at 15:44h, 08 November Reply

    And here I thought that “between a rock and a hard place” was derived from Scylla and Charibdis! (But maybe they were both rocks…)

    Thanks for the etymological insights!

    • Maria Cristina de la Vega
      Posted at 16:16h, 08 November Reply

      Actually you may well be right. It is one of the possibilities I came across during my research but I thought the other was more folkloric and in tune with our culture here.

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