Tag Archives: Idioms

Pulling Someone’s Leg

The idioms are back again, hurray! Today’s instalment is all about the naughty side of tomfoolery. That’s right, although the phrase ‘to pull someone’s leg’ now denotes a friendly bit of banter, meaning something like ‘to make fun of somebody by making them look foolish’, it actually used to have criminal undertones.

There are many proposed origins for the phrase, but my research suggests that pulling someone’s leg was originally a method used by thieves to entrap their quarry and thereby relieve them of their valuables. One thief would be assigned ‘tripper up’ duty, and would use various instruments (usually a wire) to knock the target to the ground. Whilst the hapless victim crawled about on the floor, the other members of the gang would rush in to complete the robbery.

It is not difficult to see how the comical effect of somebody being tripped over during the course of bit of skulduggery might have given rise to today’s meaning of the phrase.

I am not American (praise Jebus) but I gather that ‘pulling someone’s leg’ in American English retains a sinister edge, alluding to an element of trickery or deception in the part of the leg puller. Perhaps this might be a lingering connotation from the idiom’s less than Christian origin.



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Taken Aback

All the best phrases have nautical origins. So it is with taken aback, meaning ‘surprised or startled by a sudden turn of events.’ Aback means in a backward direction. Like ‘adown’ and ‘around’, it was originally two words, but these became merged into one in the 15th century.

Taken aback, then, is an allusion to something that is startling enough to make somebody jump back in surprise. The first to be ‘taken aback’ were not people, but ships. The sails of a ship are said to be ‘aback’ when the wind blows them flat against the masts and spars that support them. In this way, if the wind were to turn suddenly so that a sailing ship was facing unexpectedly into the wind, the ship was said to be ‘taken aback’.

The figurative use of the phrase, meaning surprised rather than physically pushed back, came in the 19th century. It was used by the great Charles Dickens, amongst other people, who wrote in his American Notes of 1842: “I don’t think I was ever so taken aback in all my life.”


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Double Dutch

In spite of all appearances to the contrary, this phrase – meaning, ‘nonsense’, or ‘gibberish’ – does not seem to have originally been spoken with the Dutch in mind at all. Rather it was once intended as a slur against the Germans, those rascally scapegoats of the 20th Century, although my research suggests that even at the time (late 1700s – early 1800s), this little detail might not have been apparent to your average slurrer.

‘Dutch’ was originally the generic name for both Germans and, as they were formally called, Hollanders. High Dutch was the language of southern Germany and Low Dutch the language of The Netherlands. I have been at least partially persuaded that ‘Double Dutch’ is in fact a synonym for High Dutch and as such involves the Germans and not the Dutch.

In the way of so many of the greatest idioms, ‘Double Dutch’ originated from sailors. Indeed, the first recorded usage of the phrase, and many subsequent usages, refer(s) to Double Dutch in terms of the winding of rope. The indication here is that ‘Double Dutch’ is the linguistic equivalent of a badly coiled rope. Those sailors really knew how to make a man feel small.

There are a host of phrases in English that include the word ‘Dutch’. Given the close proximity of the two countries, their proud maritime traditions and their long standing trading and military rivalries, this is hardly surprising. Here are a few. All of them, as you will see, paint the Dutch in a fairly poor light.

Dutch bargain – a bargain made when one is debilitated by drink – first recorded in 1654.
Dutch defence – a legal defence in which the defendant seeks clemency by deceitfully betraying others – 1749.
Dutch comfort – cold comfort; only good because things could have been worse – 1796.
Dutch metal/Dutch gold – a cheap alloy resembling gold – 1825.
Dutch courage – brash bravery induced by drink – 1826.
Dutch treat – no treat as such; each person pays for their own expenses – 1887.

In other news, Double-Dutch is also the name of a children’s skipping game, in which two ropes are used. I’m told the game is still played, both on the street and at tournament level, most commonly in the USA.

Wow, we’re really learning something today, aren’t we?


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No Room To Swing A Cat

A short one today.

For those of you who hear this phrase (meaning, of a room, ‘lack of space’) and imagine a howling Felix being mercilessly propelled through the air by its tail I am sad to say it looks as though the cat in question was in actual fact a flail-like whip used to punish no-good sailors in the Royal Navy. Space was very tight below deck, which is why the cat was always let out of the bag (to mix idioms, quite incorrectly) above deck.

In terms of the aforementioned cat in bag, the phrase dates back to market exchanges of the 1500s. At this time a sneaky sort might make a killing trading pigs by fraudulently offering up a cat for trade instead. By demanding that one’s cooperative ‘take the cat out of the bag’, one exposes a potential trick, thereby ensuring a fair trade.


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The Full Monty

The Full Monty, meaning ‘complete’, or ‘the whole thing’ (more recently with nudist connotations) could have originated from a number of competing claims. It is typically attributed to the tailoring business of Sir Montague Burton. In this context, a complete three-piece suit, i.e. one with a waistcoat, would be ‘the Full Monty’.

Sir Montague was certainly famous enough to have sired the phrase, but personally I prefer to believe that it owes its existence to Field Marshall Montgomery, leader of the infamous Desert Rats. It might have been something to do with his habit of wearing his full set of medals, or his insistence on his troops eating a full English breakfast every day, or his rigorous training regime. Take your pick.

Incidentally, the American equivalent – ‘the whole nine yards’ – may also have originated from the Second World War, where aircraft gunners would apparently give their enemy ‘the whole nine yards’ by firing their entire ammunition belt (as opposed to the normal practice of short, controlled bursts) the belt being nine yards long. However the evidence in this case is more than a little shaky.

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Hair of the dog

I am currently nursing an urgent after party headache and so this phrase seemed to hold a particular relevance. Meaning ‘a small measure of drink intended to cure a hangover’, it is actually short for ‘the hair of the dog that bit me’. It originates from the medieval belief that when someone was bitten by a rabid dog, a cure could be made by applying the same dog’s hair to the infected wound. The dangers of this inconvenient suggestion should be immediately apparent. As my trusted source at somewhere I’ve now lost the link for  so deftly puts it, “How many people managed to get bitten again when trying to approach the aforesaid dog to acquire the hair to achieve this completely useless remedy isn’t known.”

Enough of the writing, I’m going to find a dog of my own.


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Bird/Chick (when referring to a female)

I’m afraid that I have failed you all, for I was unable to find any solid history behind the reasons why a female might be referred to as a bird or a chick. It was suggested by one source that the description fits because women are ‘flighty’. Another proposed that a man might refer to a woman as a bird because he ‘wants her to see his pecker’.

These worthy explanations aside, a possible alternative could be that the English ‘chick’ has derived from the Spanish word for a girl, which is ‘chica’. The step onto bird is easy to see from this position.

Not wanting to accept that the Queen’s language might have been sullied in this manner (joke) I turned elsewhere for answers. In my reading I found that in 1400’s Europe prostitutes were referred to as ‘chicks’ because they were considered in essence to be of that same class of animal. If this is indeed the correct origin, which I suspect it might be, by calling a woman a chick you are essentially calling her a whore. Just as well I don’t, then.


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