I like words. Sometimes, at Bourke Accounting, I think I drive Bill a bit mental. It’s too simple to say, “Man, that guy’s a jerk.” Instead, I must label said jerk as an “invertebrate reprobate” or something else with too many syllables and a high chance of mispronunciation (I speak quickly so most people don’t notice). Bill will shake his head, ask why I have to make things difficult and walk away, sometimes muttering about crazy receptionists.
Because I like words, and because I like to make easy things difficult, I’m always interested to learn the backstory of well-known, everyday phrases. I get a charge when discovering that familiar idioms originally meant something completely different or have very dark true meanings. Hey, some people like to gamble, dance all night or play chess. I get off on this.
So, here are a few of my favorite phrase origin stories:
1) Cat Got Your Tongue. There are a couple of different versions of the truth with this one. For example, one explanation suggests that the phrase came from the English Navy’s use of the Cat-o’-nine-tails whip. When the whipping of some poor punished sailor was finished, the victim was left speechless (Boredpanda.com) – hence, cat got your tongue. Another concept is that, in ancient Egypt, liars would have their tongues cut out and fed to lions (Grammarist.com). Also, there’s the theory that the phrase originated from the Middle Ages, regarding witches: if you happened upon a witch doing witch things, a black cat (her/his familiar) stole your tongue so you couldn’t speak about what you saw (Bloomsbury-international.com). Finally, Grammarist.com is just a party pooper by saying that the phrase is nothing more “than odd, childish imagery.” Whippings and witches are more interesting.
2) Blood is Thicker than Water. While the origin of this phrase is debated, the meaning is not. Researchers seem to agree that the line actually reads: The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb. Learningenglish.voanews.com posits that this means “bloodshed on the battlefield creates stronger ties than the water of the womb does.” Basically, the people you choose to risk your life with are closer to you than the people of your family, whom you had no say in choosing. Although we use the phrase to signify that family is more important than friends, the original wording suggests that the intent was just the opposite.
3) Don’t Cut Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face. As far as backstories go, this one is brutal. So, around the year 867, Vikings attacked Coldingham monastery in Scotland. The Nun in Charge, St. Aebbe the Younger, decided that it would be better if the nuns disfigured themselves rather than lose their honor to crazed Vikings. She managed to cut off her nose, her upper lip and scared holy bejeezus out of the Vikings. The nuns were left with their honor intact (the Vikings, did, however, burn down the monastery with all of the nuns inside) (Didyouknowfacts.com).
At the next dinner party, sit me next to the etymologist. Rock stars and FBI agents might have interesting stories, but I don’t think they come close to a person who knows the history of our weird phrases. Our commonly used idioms say a lot about us as a species, after all.
Bourke Accounting bookkeepers and tax preparers know a lot. Do they know the origins of your favorite phrases? Maybe, maybe not. However, Bourke Accounting pros do know all of the rules to keep you on the right side of the IRS. Your Bourke Accounting expert is always fascinated with learning new things, so if you know the history of a common expression, your Bourke Accounting specialist is more than happy to hear it.
Written by Sue H.