Many of our common words and phrases have interesting, surprising, and sometimes humorously twisted origins. Enjoy!
rule of thumb - general rule - from an old English law which made it illegal for a man to beat his wife with anything thicker than the width of his thumb.
read the riot act - to rebuke strongly - from the Riot Act of 1716, whose terms stated that a group of twelve or more people must disperse if someone in authority read a portion of the act out loud to them. Apparently it was only repealed in 1973.
man of straw - a man of no substance or capital - in early England certain poor men would loiter around the law courts offering to be a false witness ...
for anyone, if paid. They showed their availability by wearing a straw in their shoe.
over a barrel - powerless to resist - people rescued from drowning were draped head-down over a barrel in the hope of forcing water from the lungs.
peeping tom - someone who secretly looks at others in a private state of undress or intimacy - from the story of Lady Godiva, who in 1040 rode naked through the streets of Coventry in response to her husband, Leofric, imposing a new harsh tax on the townsfolk (he'd said that he would withdraw the tax if she rode naked from one end of town to the other). The townsfolk agreed not to look and moreover that anyone who did should be executed. A tailor, presumably called Tom, was said to have peeped, and had his eyes put out as a result. Leofric withdrew the tax.
line your pockets - make a lot of money for yourself, perhaps not legitimately - from the early 18th century, when the court tailor sought the patronage of the famous dandy, George 'Beau' Brummell, he supposedly sent him a dress coat with the pockets lined with bank-notes.
kill with kindness - from the story of how Draco met his death, supposedly by being smothered and suffocated by caps and cloaks thrown onto him at the theatre of Aegina, from spectators showing their appreciation of him, 590 BC.
pipe dream - unrealistic hope or scheme - the 'pipe dream' metaphor originally alluded to the fanciful notions of an opium drug user. The pipe dream expression can be traced back to the late 19th century in print, although it was likely to have been in use in speech for some years prior. It was most certainly a reference opium pipe smoking, which was fashionable among hedonists and the well-to-do classes of the 18th and 19th century. Much of Samuel Coleridge's poetry was opium fuelled, notably Kubla Kahn, 1816. Someone who was under the influence or addicted to opium was said to be 'on the pipe'.
worth his salt - a valued member of the team - salt has long been associated with a man's worth, since it used to be a far more valuable commodity than now (the Austrian city of Salzburg grew almost entirely from the wealth of its salt mines). The expression originates as far back as Roman times when soldiers' pay was given in provisions, including salt.
scapegoat - a person blamed for a problem - from the ancient Jewish annual custom, whereby two goats were brought before the alter of the tabernacle (place of worship) by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Lots were drawn to determine which goat should be sacrificed. The surviving goat then had the sins of the priest and the people transferred to it by the priest's confession, after which it was taken into the wilderness and allowed to escape, hence 'scapegoat' ('scape' was a middle English abbreviation of 'escape' which is still a word but has disappeared from use).
*Cost an arm and a leg - In George Washington's days, there were no cameras. One's image was either sculpted or painted. Some paintings of George Washington showed him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while others showed both legs and both arms. Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be painted. Arms and legs are "limbs," therefore painting them would cost the buyer more. Hence the expression, "Okay, but it'll cost you an arm and a leg.."
*Not playing with a full deck - Common entertainment included playing cards. However, there was a tax levied when purchasing playing cards but only applicable to the "Ace of Spades." To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, these people were thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren't "playing with a full deck."
*Gossip - Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what the people considered important. Since there were no telephones, TV's or radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars. They were told to "go sip some ale" and listen to people's conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were dispatched at different times. "You go sip here" and "You go sip there." The two words "go sip" were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion and, thus we have the term "gossip."
by hook or by crook - any way possible - in early England the poor of the manor were able to to collect wood from the forest by using a metal spiked hook and a crook (a staff with hooked end used by shepherds), using the crook to pull down what they couldn't reach with the hook. The equivalent French expression means 'either with the thief's hook or the bishop's crook'.
put a sock in it -shut up - from the days before electronic hi-fi, when wind-up gramophones (invented in 1887) used a horn to amplify the sound from the needle on the record; the common way to control or limit the volume was to put a sock on the horn, thus muting the sound. The practice was still common in the 1930's.
*Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey - In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons. Those cannons fired round iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon. However, how to prevent them from rolling about the deck? The best storage method devised was a square-based pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four resting on nine, which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one problem...how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding or rolling from under the others. The solution was a metal plate called a "Monkey" with 16 round indentations.
However, if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make "Brass Monkeys." Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannonballs would come right off the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, "Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey."
red tape - bureaucracy - from the middle-to-late English custom for lawyers and government officials to tie documents together with red tape. The term was first used metaphorically to describe official formality by Charles Dickens (1812-70).
Most of these meanings came from www.businessballs.com, except those marked with an asterick (*) which arrived in emails without a source noted.
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