Ye Olde English Sayings

I am a long time lover of word origins. I enjoyed your page very much! I think it would be nice, however, if you pointed out that many of your origins are "folk etymologies" ... stories passed among us to explain where words came from that are not necessarily based in linguistic "truth"
— k. ruby

If you have any comments about the origins
of common English phrases, please CLICK HERE.

What's the Meaning of This?
Kindred Keepsakes   Delta Oaks Design

ENGLISH SAYINGS & CUSTOMS that we have grown up with and taken for granted were
explained during a tour of the Anne Hathaway house in Victoria, British Columbia.
Bookmark and Share
Sponsored Links

100x100 (animated)
Try Angie's List! Online Full Color Printing
Get a great deal on wall graphics and more at Fath

iPage Affordable Web Hosting only $3.50/mo

THE CLINK The name of a prison which was on Clink Street in the Southwark area of London.

Claudie wrote: I always thought that the doors of the cells went "clink" when they shut behind the prisoner. Maybe a more accurate name would be the "clang".

BLACK MARKET In medieval England there were nomadic mercenaries who wandered the country side and would sell their services to the highest bidder. These were hardened fighters who lived solitary lives in the wilderness. They did not have the luxury of servants to polish their armor and it would oxidize to a blackish hue, and they came to be known as black knights. At local town festivals they would have exhibition jousting matches in which the winner of the fight would win the loser's weapons and armor. The local gentry, softened by the good life, would lose to these black knights. The nomadic knights didn't have much use for an extra set of armor and would sell it back to them immediately after the fight. The losing nobility would be forced to buy back their armor and this after market came to be known as the "Black Market" (submitted by Gonzalo).

Judith interjects: Isn't it kind of strange that if "black market" is a medieval term, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't show it as having been first used until 1931 in "The Economist." Come on, this is garbage. Fun garbage maybe, but garbage.

SON OF A GUN After sailors had crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies, they would take the native women on board the ship and have their way with them in between the cannons. Some of the women the sailors left behind would have boys, who were called sons between the guns.

Read what others have to say!

PATENT LEATHER After the Patten shoe which the young women wore in the buttery. When the cream spilled on their shoes, the fat would tend to make the leather shiny.
DONE TO A TURN Meat was roasted until cooked on an upright spit which had to be turned by hand.
BEAT AROUND THE BUSH Game birds were scared out of their hiding places under bushes and then killed.
CUT THROUGH THE RED TAPE Solicitors kept their clients papers in a file folder tied with red ribbon to prevent the papers from falling out. Of course, when they wanted to get at the papers, they would have to cut through the red tape.

Note from Glenn Barry: I read that "red tape" came from the Indian Administrative Service practice of tying files with tape, these were moved by "Peons" by hand from office to office. No senior person would move a file no matter how important because of the caste system. Thus the uneducated lower caste would slow down the movement of files, thus the files were tied up with red tape, having been to India in recent times and seen this still the case I can understand where it came from. One official I went to see had the file we were talking about on the bench behind him but rang his bell for the peon to come, which took some minutes, and then asked him to get the file! This took .2 of a second.

Malinda wrote: It is often thought that carrying identification is a modern concept, but sixteenth century Europe was a fountain of red tape and bureaucracy. Even a person who lived in a small village and never left it, had papers to prove their identity. The first of these kinds of papers were given to soldiers as they returned home from wars. The soldiers were issued papers to prove they had not deserted their unit. Plagues continued to ravage mankind, so health certificates were issued to travelers, confirming that they were not plague carriers. Shortly after that, many cities required beggars, guild members, pilgrims, servants, and slaves to carry identification papers. Of course, they did not have photos to go with these IDs, so counterfeit and bogus papers became a booming trade in the underworld. The identification papers would often have a physical description of the holder. To counter this problem, the papers began to carry personal descriptions, seals, codes, special stamps, and yes, red ribbons, which became the oft mentioned red tape of the modern era.

Ps & Qs
Ale was served at local taverns out of a "tankard" ... you were charged by the angle of your elbow ... half-way up... you drank a pint, all the way up... you drank a quart. Since the Quart cost so much more than the Pint, you were warned to "Mind your Ps & Qs"

Comment from Bill Kling: "Minding one's p's and q's" is a typesetter's admonition. When you handle individual character type slugs, you need to be careful of how you store and retrieve the p's and q's, because they look so much alike.

Sally says: It does stand for "Mind your Pints and Quarts," a saying that came into existence long before any typesetters could be concerned about mistaking Ps and Qs on a typewriter! The expression was intended for people to mind how many Pints and Quarts they drank, or in other words, to behave!

Jon wrote: I've always been taught that it's just a shorthand way of saying 'mind your pleases and thank yous' -- something you tell your kids when they go off to spend the night at a friend's house so that they will be polite. Maybe this is a colloquial definition, because the pints and quarts thing sounds more like a general 'take care' kind of warning.

Jim added: Some 20 years ago I was visiting Williamsburg, VA. Specifically I was in Raleigh's Tavern. The derivation of 'minding your P(int)s and Q(uart)s' was deemed to have come from the necessity of the 'barkeep' to keep accurate disbursement records of alcohol for the purpose of paying the tax on alcohol. Don't know if they are still telling that version.

William wrote: I'd heard this stood for Price and Quality, two things that are worth minding.

Joe wrote: The best explanation of "minding your P's & Q's" I've heard came from the fact that the barkeep would keep track of how much you drank on a chalk board. This admonished you to keep track of how much you had to drink so that the barkeep couldn't add a few pints to your tab and charge you for something you hadn't consumed. I was told to pay for each drink as I got them to avoid this problem while on a business trip to Spain in the 70's. Tourists were known to wind up in jail over bar tab squabbles.

Another obscure explanation: It came from the hobby of coin collecting. Old coins had to treated very carefully so as not to harm them. To clean a coin expertly was called "frazing". The coin had to be immersed in a liquid named "pease", then it was bathed in another liquid known as "kyuse". It was essential to get the order of these two baths correct Hence: "Be sure to mind your pease and kyuse" -- to fraze a coin.

GETTING TANKED When you drank too much out of the above "tankard" you were said to be "tanked" ... if you got so "tanked" that you passed out, there was a chance that somebody might think you had actually died. Since back then they didn't have experience with taking pulses, they often buried people alive who were actually in a drunken stupor or otherwise comatose.
PITCHER A leather jug treated with tar pitch to help it hold its shape.
GETTING BOMBED A bombard is a leather jug which holds 8 pints or 4 quarts. A full bombard of ale would make you drunk.
WET YOUR WHISTLE Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used to blow the whistle to get some service.
TUMBLER & TIPSY Glasses were hand blown, thus flat bottomed glasses were difficult to produce. Those with curved bottoms would tend to tumble over when placed on the table, and too many tumblers of whiskey would make you a little bit tipsy.
SAVED BY THE BELL When our ancestors realized that they were burying a great deal of people before their time had actually come, they came up with a solution. They tied a string onto the "dead" person's hand, buried them, and tied the other end of the string to a bell and then tied it to nearby tree branch. If the person revived enough to ring the bell, their survivors would rush out and dig them up. Hence... "saved by the bell"

From Pete Hustwayte: Your definition of "Saved by the bell" more closely applies to the term "Dead-Ringer". After several coffins were excavated and found to have scratches on the inside, morticians began the process of tying a string to the finger of the corpse. If that person was alive and they pulled the string, they were called a dead-ringer. This is also the origin of the term Graveyard Shift. The person from the mortuary who was assigned the task of sitting at the new grave sight to listen for the bell to ring was said to be working the Graveyard Shift.

Comment from Michael: "Are you kidding? Where did you get this? From Poe? The expression is from boxing, where a boxer being counted out is "saved by the bell" if the round ends before the count."

Paul wrote: Bells have a long tradition of being used to scare away evil spirits. It was said that ringing a church bell would cause witches flying on their brooms to fall from the sky. Perhaps the ringing of a bell to scare away evil is the source for this saying?

Craig wrote: Saved by the Bell did come from the graveyard bells. People were dying in great numbers from disease, so there was a rush to bury them before disease spread. However, some people did not die, but only fell into comas, and when a person revived in the middle of a funeral, people started to take notice that this may be the case. Special bell ringing devices were put above graves so the buried person, if they revived, could bring help to unearth them.

Another voice: This now refer to a boxing match, but that was definitely a use which evolved from the original meaning which you outlined above. People need to realize that these are the origins we're talking about, not the later developments of the phrases!

THRESHOLD The raised door entrance held back the straw (called thresh) on the floor.

Bill says: Thresh (to beat grain) comes from the Old English and has the same root as thrash (to flail about). Tread is also from the AU with a similar root and has kept the meaning of step on or walk. Hence thrash out (in the sense of discussing), threshold (one word, one h, never two), thresh (separate grain by beating -- and on to the relatively recent construct thresher), threshing floor (the obvious), and treadmill (treadmill -- too obvious). Our threshold then carries the stepping connotation from tread, and while it may have been installed originally to keep out the grain, I think it more likely that it was an attempt to keep out wind and water...

CHEW THE FAT A host would offer his guests a piece of bacon, which was stored above the fireplace in the parlor, so they could chew the fat during their visit.
Candles were expensive to make, so often reeds were dipped in tallow and burned instead. When visitors came, it was the custom for guests to make their exit by the time the lights went out. Therefore, if your host didn't want you to stay very long, he would give you a "short stick."

George wrote: In the days of outhouses, often there were outhouses with multiple "holes" so that more than one person could relieve him(her)self at a time. Before the time of toilet paper, Sears catalogs and corn cobs, a stick shaped like a shoe horn was used for "hygienic cleaning." It was rather a short spatula device with a longer handle. Well, if one person was done, he could request that the person using the adjoining hole pass the stick. Of course the person with the stick would pass it holding onto the other person by holding the long end of the stick. The recipient would therefore receive it holding the "short end of the stick."

BURNING THE CANDLE AT BOTH ENDS If they REALLY didn't want you to stay very long, they would light "both ends" at the same time!

Bill comments: This had nothing to do with getting rid of guests. When a clerk worked at night, it was hard to see by candle-light. they did not have two candles, they would turn the candle on its side, and light both ends. This gave twice as much light, but burned out in half the time. The phrase, therefore, came to mean someone who worked very hard, but would wear themselves out (what today we call 'burn-out') very quickly.

Rob Flynn says: The phrase is actually 'burning the candle at both ends of the day' i.e. getting up early in the morning (and burning a candle) and going to bed late (and again burning a candle). Which is why we say that someone looking tired and haggard from overwork (or overplay) has been burning the candle at both ends...

NOT FIT TO HOLD A CANDLE TO A menial household task was holding a candle for someone while they completed some type of activity. Some people were not held in much esteem, therefore they were "not fit to hold a candle to."
A short rush, which would burn for a short time, would be used when company came over rather late; when it burnt out, you would want to see the hind end of your guests out the door.

Paul wrote: What utter twaddle! A bum is/was a bum-bailiff, and "getting the bum's rush" was being helped on your way by a couple of officers.

Tim wrote: Rushes, attached to a stick, were used as a broom. Women in a home or inn where a bum came in would chase, or sweep, the unwanted, out of the place with said broom. Thus, the bum's rush.

GIVING SOMEONE THE COLD SHOULDER When a guests would over stay their welcome as house guests, the hosts would (instead of feeding them good, warm meals) give their too-long staying guests the worst part of the animal, not warmed, but the COLD SHOULDER.
GETTING A SQUARE MEAL Your dinner plate was a square piece of wood with a "bowl" carved out to hold your serving of the perpetual stew that was always cooking over the fire. The kettle was never actually emptied and cleaned out. New ingredients were simply added to the muck. You always took your "square" with you when you went traveling.

From Tommo, MIDN, RAN, Royal Australian Navy: Another Naval expression, correctly described by the second person as being to efficiently fit more plates on a sailors' table. A square plate allowed a larger amount of foot on a relatively smaller plate. So a square meal was a larger meal than they would otherwise be having - a good square meal being a favourable thing.

From BBC program about antiques: The British war ships of the time of Nelson and Trafalga had square plates to fit the tables slung between the cannons below decks. So many sailors were from such poor and under nourished backgrounds they saw this as a "Square Meal" - meaning the only good one they had had.

From John we get this version: Food was cooked in the kitchen in a big kettle hanging over the fire, and things were added to the pot every day. People would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes it had food in it that had been in there for over a week. Hence the rhyme: "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."

FROG IN YOUR THROAT Medieval physicians believed that the secretions of a frog could cure a cough if they were coated on the throat of the patient. The frog was placed in the mouth of the sufferer and remained there until the physician decided that the treatment was complete.
UPPER CRUST Visitors to the Anne Hathaway's cottage (near Stratford upon Avon) are given this explanation while looking at the bread oven beside the fireplace in the kitchen: "The bread was put, as a raw lump of dough, straight into the bread oven. No bread tin, it just sits on the floor of the oven. The oven is heated by the fire and is very hot at the bottom. When the bed is done baking and taken out to cool, the base of the loaf is overcooked black and also dirty. The top of the loaf is done just right, and still clean. The bottom of the loaf is for the servants to eat, while the upper crust is for the master of the house.
EATING HUMBLE PIE Servants at "umble pie" which was made from deer waste while their Master and his guests had the better cuts of meat.
TURN THE TABLES Tables only had one finished side. The other side, less expensive to make, was more rough. When the family was alone, they ate on the rough side to keep the good side nice for company. When company came, the whole top lifted off and was turned to its good side.
CLEAN YOUR PLATE BEFORE YOU HAVE DESSERT The square plate (above) was never washed either. After your daily dose of stew, you wiped your plate clean with a piece of bread. Then you flipped it over which provided a flat surface for your dessert portion (if there was any, that is)
ROOM & BOARD An apprentice would journey to another village to learn more about his craft (journeyman). There he would pay someone for his room, and food for his board.

From Tommo, MIDN, RAN, Royal Australian Navy: A Board was a table on board ship. Having little room, one or two timber boards, otherwise used by the carpenter for general tasks like fixing the ship, would be set as the sailors' table. Room and board was some room to sling your hammock, (not A room) and board was your scran. [SCRAN = food, from a supplement sailors were once fed at sea; Sultanas, Currents, Raisans and Nuts.] Today, part of the Officer selection process involves "going before a board", being half a dozen or so senior officers at a table facing you on your own, as a group interview. The board is not the Officers, but the table itself. The Naval disciplinary process, at the lower end of seriousness, involves a going before a "Table". This is going before the CO (Commanding Officer); a little bit like a small court proceeding. This distinguishes it from a 'Board', as the Table was something only the CO would have. The table it was not long enough along one side to hold a "Board" interview, as the Officers would surround it during their meals, and it tended to be only large enough to hold the ship's Officer company.

Julia says: More to the point, the term "board" comes from the eating table. Before power tools, it was a great and lengthy effort to make smooth-hewn tables; people would make do with as few pieces as possible. Usually a table was just one board, sometimes two, set on trestles, making a long narrow surface to eat from. Coming to dinner was called "coming to the board," a table cloth was referred to as "board clothes," and when hired help or an apprentice came to stay, they paid in cash or service for their room (where they slept) and their "board" (what they ate). Note: the American colonials hated making boards suitable for tables so much that they often used split apart shipping crates; there are still examples to be found which have the painted names of the master of the house and the shipping agent/company on the underside.

RULE OF THUMB An old English law declared that a man could not beat his wife with a stick any larger than the diameter of his thumb.

Comment from Lance: When brewing beer, the temperature at which the yeast is added is important. Too cold and the yeast won't work, too hot and it'll die. Before the days of thermometers, a brewer would determine temperature by simply sticking his thumb into the mixture.

Another possibility: As an artist, I always thought that this saying applied to the act of using one's thumb as a judge of scale. You literally use your thumb to act as a ruler to determine the scale of an object in your painting.

Peter wrote: the French word for an inch (puce) is the same as for a thumb. I wonder if the thumb was used as a rough reckoner for inches? Just a thought.

Anthony wrote: this has nothing to do with painting, nor is it anything to do with wife beating, which is just plain old down home American stupidity. It was used by bakers in judging flour, the flour being rubbed between thumb and fingers.

GETTING YOUR GOAT This apparently refers to an old English (Welsh?) belief that keeping a goat in the barn would have a calming effect on the cows, hence producing more milk. When one wanted to antagonize/terrorize one's enemy, you would abscond with their goat rendering their milk cows less- to non-productive.

Comment from Angel: This explains the expression in modern America: "Don't tell people where your goat is tied up --- then they can never get your goat". Meaning if another doesn't know your weakness s/he can't use them against you.

SAVING FACE OR LOSING FACE The noble ladies and gentlemen of the late 1700s wore much makeup to impress each other. Since they rarely bathed, the makeup would get thicker and thicker. If they sat too close to the heat of the fireplace, the makeup would start to melt. If that happened, a servant would move the screen in front of the fireplace to block the heat, so they wouldn't "lose face."
MIND YOUR OWN BEESWAX This came from the days when smallpox was a regular disfigurement. Fine ladies would fill in the pocks with beeswax. However when the weather was very warm the wax might melt. But it was not the thing to do for one lady to tell another that her makeup needed attention. Hence the sharp rebuke to "mind your own beeswax!"
STONE COLD Slate floors were often cold enough during the winter months that any bare skin coming in contact with them would "stick". The slate floors were covered with a layer of hay to provide some warmth. The kitchen was the only room kept heated during the winter. All of the family spent the day cooped up in this one room (often 10 kids or more)... also the family cats and dogs who served important functions of "mousing," "garbage disposal," and etc.
with holes in the seat (a.k.a. "drainage chair") 
During the winter months, young babies were strapped into their chairs and were never allowed to crawl around in the hay on the stone-cold floor. They didn't wear any diapers of any sort. They sat in that chair all day... and you know why there were holes in their chair!
SPRING CLEANING The layer of hay in the kitchen, was finally hauled out of the house when the weather turned warm in the Spring.
BON(e)FIRE The discarded "bones" from winter meals were piled outside and a bonefire would be set to get rid of them.

Comment from Jeff Parsons: The term Bonfire originated in Scandinavia (Denmark specifically) and was the celebration after a battle victory. The bodies of the dead were piled and burned. The fire provided warmth and light for the aftermath party. The term was later (about 600 years) used for any large celebratory fire.

From Randy: The word Bon Fire is taken from Tudor History. In 1555, Edmund Bonner was the Bishop of London. Acting on his orders, over 300 English men and women were burnt at the stake for their faith. Because of Bonner's actions we now call them Bon's fires.

SLEEP TIGHT The bed frames were strung with ropes on which straw mattresses were placed. After some time the ropes would loosen and one of the young men would pull them tight.

From Bob Vila's tour of famous American homes: In Colonial America (and, presumably in Europe as well) the beds were not of the box spring variety that we enjoy today. The mattress laid on top of a web of ropes. There was a tool - an iron type of gadget that looked somewhat like an old clothes pin but larger - which was used to tighten the ropes when they became too slack. Thus, the expression "sleep tight."

GET OUT OF BED ON THE WRONG SIDE An old superstition said that it was bad luck to put the left foot down when getting out of bed.
TIE THE KNOT Tying the knot of the ropes in the marriage bed.

James in Japan writes: The priest performing the wedding would bind the bride and grooms hands with rope during the ceremony. In modern day, you will often see the priest place a sash around their hands rather than rope, and it is from this that the saying comes. Although the practice is not as common as it was, depending on your denomination it is still done.

Karen: This is also from the old marriage custom of actually tying the couple's hands together as part of the ceremony. They were not allowed to untie it until they had consummated the marriage.

Claudie wrote: A Swedish exchange student told me that illiterate sailors and soldiers of yesteryear would send a piece of rope to their sweethearts when they wanted to get married. If the rope came back with a knot in it, that meant she said "yes" to the marriage proposal. He demonstrated this by tying two ornate knots in a length of rope. When the ends were pulled, the knots came together in the middle. Even if this isn't the origin of the expression, it was a charming demonstration.

Mike wrote: Having recently attended a Hindu wedding it would seem that the phrase is a quite literal one where the bride and groom each tie a necklace of flowers to consummate the marriage.

HONEYMOON It was the accepted practice in Babylonia 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer, and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the "honey month" or what we know today as the "honeymoon".

Most English homes of old had "thatched" roofs. Canopies were placed over the beds to keep bugs, mice, dirt, rain, etc. from disturbing your sleep! Of course, I think I would want to stay awake because I'd be so afraid of having to be "saved by the bell"!

Malinda wrote: The ultimate beds in the late Middle Ages were canopy beds that had mattresses filled with feather down. Canopy beds have always been sign of wealth. Tales have been told that they were designed to keep debris from falling into one’s bed, but the truth is that people who were wealthy enough to own a canopy bed probably did not need to worry about their ceiling rotting and falling into their bed. The canopy and the surrounding bed curtains did help keep the warmth in though. It was also rare for just one person to sleep in a bed, unless they were wealthy, visiting guests often slept with their host and hostess.


Note from Joanne: Some of these definitions were inspired by my 1995 tour of the Anne Hathaway House. If you are planning to visit Victoria, British Columbia... be sure to visit the Olde English Inn and take the Anne Hathaway Cottage tour. Their address is 429 Lampson St., Victoria and the phone is 250-388-4353. It's a unique experience, but don't try the Rabbit Pie!