Occasionally on Fridays I will post facts for our interest or amusement. To begin the series, I examine the little known origins of a dozen idioms still used in everyday conversation to explain different situations in a few words.
- Make the grade: reach the required standard, measure up. The word grade is short for “gradient”, and this idiom derives from 19th century railroad construction when calculations were carefully made to ensure engines didn’t encounter sudden steep gradients.
Turn a blind eye: pretend not to notice something. This expression results from Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) who, during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, is alleged to have deliberately raised his telescope to his blind eye, thus ensuring he would not see any signal from his superior giving him discretion to withdraw from the battle.
- Larger than life: a flamboyant, gregarious person. The New Yorker used the phrase to describe wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965).
- Get a leg up: gain an advantage. An equestrian’s helper creates a foothold by cupping the hands to heft the rider upward, throwing a leg up and over the steed.
- In the red: losing money, in a deficit. In medieval times the Church maintained meticulous accounting records. But ink was rare and expensive. When monasteries and far-flung churches could not afford ink, they bled domesticated animals to provide a substitute in the dipping wells. As a result, these financial records were written “in the red.”
Face the music: accept the unpleasant consequences of our actions. The phrase originated from the tradition of disgraced officers being ‘drummed out’ of their regiment.
- Bite off more than we can chew: undertake more than we can manage. In the 19th century, people chewed tobacco but, when offered a bite of someone’s tobacco block, greedily took a larger bite than they could chew.
- Mind your Ps and Qs: behave properly. Comes from early pub days when beer and ale were served in pint and quart containers and the tab for consumption kept on a chalkboard. Watching your Ps and Qs meant controlling your alcohol intake.
- Toe the line: follow the group, don’t disagree. This term comes from military line-ups for inspection. Soldiers are expected to line up, that is put their toes on a line, and submit to an inspection.
- In the doldrums: feel depressed, unmotivated. Doldrums is the name of a place in the ocean located near the equator that’s characterized by unstable trade winds. A sailing ship caught in the Doldrums can be stranded due to lack of wind.
- Throw in the towel: admit defeat. The phrase comes from boxing in which a fighter indicates surrender by throwing a towel into the ring
- Don’t burn your bridges: don’t say or do anything you’ll later regret when leaving a job, moving or changing a situation. The phrase applies to military strategy: burning a bridge troops crossed to keep the enemy from using it may backfire if they realize later on they need the bridge to escape.
Feel free to share your favourite idioms! Or send me fun facts for future Friday posts! •