Where Did It Originate?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Rhodesia
THE ‘handwriting was on the wall,’ but he escaped ‘by the skin of his teeth.’ To people not familiar with the English language, this may sound like strange speech indeed.
Idioms and figurative expressions undoubtedly add color and depth to a language. How descriptive of plenty it is to say that a land is ‘flowing with milk and honey’! Or, how significant to describe a person facing a dilemma as being ‘between the Devil and the deep blue sea’! Then, too, the futility of a project may be likened to the ‘flogging of a dead horse.’
To have had your teeth set on edge has deeper meaning than merely saying that you have had an irritating experience. And it is quite descriptive to speak of a deceitful person as one who likes to ‘run with the hare while hunting with the hounds.’
Have you ever had the uncomfortable experience of trying to sleep on a bed that you had made carelessly? Well, to suffer the consequences of your own actions is well expressed by the saying ‘you must sleep on the bed you make.’
When you realize that Gargantua was a mythical giant who, as a day-old babe, required 17,913 cows to supply him with milk, you can appreciate the significance of a ‘gargantuan appetite.’ And what about Damocles? In Greek legend, he was a courtier of King Dionysius and often praised the monarch for his wealth and happiness. One day, to show Damocles how precarious such happiness was, the king invited him to a banquet. Damocles was seated at the table, but over his head hung a sword suspended by a single hair. Hence, ‘the sword of Damocles’ is an expression used to describe the circumstances of a person in imminent danger of losing his life, or at least it pertains to one’s finding oneself in an extremely insecure position.
Have you ever wondered how various unusual expressions originated? Knowing this often helps one to understand the depth of meaning intended by them.
The Bible’s Contribution
It may come as a surprise to many that Bible events have made a generous contribution to the English language. For instance, the miraculous handwriting on the wall of King Belshazzar’s palace meant doom for mighty Babylon. (Dan. 5:1-6, 17-31) To ‘escape by the skin of one’s teeth’ reminds a Bible reader of the expression used by the godly man Job, who endured many painful experiences and said “I escape with the skin of my teeth.” (Job 19:20) So near death did Job come that he could truly say that he escaped with (not by) the skin of his teeth. Interestingly, scientists have come to realize that the enamel covering of the teeth is not just a dead shell. Rather, they speak of it as a “superskin” produced by epithelial (skin) cells.
Speaking of teeth calls to mind how the Bible book of Ezekiel aptly illustrated the fact that the people of ancient Israel were suffering because of the sins of their forefathers. Accordingly, through the prophet Ezekiel, Jehovah God cited the proverbial saying: “Fathers are the ones that eat unripe grapes, but it is the teeth of the sons that get set on edge.”—Ezek. 18:1, 2.
Solomon, wise king of ancient Israel, spoke of the ‘fly in the ointment,’ to show the detrimental effect that “a little foolishness” has on a person previously noted for “wisdom and glory.” (Eccl. 10:1) The Bible also indicated that ‘to spare the rod is to spoil the child.’ (Prov. 13:24) It speaks about ‘the little bird that tells the secret.’ (Eccl. 10:20) And the prophet Jeremiah wrote that ‘a leopard cannot change its spots,’ even as wicked people do not improve their personalities.—Jer. 13:23.
Sometimes entertainers of today are spoken of as ‘bringing the house down,’ with the raucous laughter of an audience. Well, Israel’s judge Samson literally did this while serving as entertainment for the Philistines who were making sport of him. Though Samson was blind, he was led by a boy to the two main pillars of the large building teeming with thousands of spectators. Then, at the height of the merriment, Samson brought the house down in a scene of death and destruction by applying his God-given strength to the pillars.—Judg. 16:25-30.
Interesting is the expression “hocus-pocus,” often denoting speech or actions employed to hide deception. This term is thought by some to come from the Latin words used by Catholic priests while consecrating the Eucharist. As the priest raised the bread above his head, he said “Hoc est corpus,” meaning “this is the body.” The Roman Catholic Church teaches that at the moment that the bread is raised above the head a miraculous change takes place, with the bread literally becoming the fleshly body of Jesus Christ. Evidently, some could see through the deception and labeled it “hocus-pocus.”—Compare Luke 22:19.
Along different lines, “Uncle Sam” has come to represent the American government. How did this originate? Well, a man named Elbert Anderson once identified his stores on the Hudson River as E.A.—U.S. (Elbert Anderson—United States). At the same time, a government inspector by the name of Samuel Wilson had become known as “Uncle Sam.” One day an employee was asked the meaning of “U.S.” and jokingly replied “Uncle Sam.” Such a simple origin and yet it stuck!
The Irish have contributed “Blarney stone” to the English language. In 1602 Cormack Macarthy held the Castle of Blarney, but made an armistice with Carew, the lord president, on condition of surrendering the fort to the English garrison. Daily, Carew would look for fulfillment, only to be consoled with protocols and soft speeches until he became the laughingstock of Queen Elizabeth’s ministers. So, blarney has come to mean soft, meaningless speeches intended to gain some end. In the castle lies an inscribed slab, and to this day hundreds of visitors yearly make their way there to kiss the Blarney stone, at least some of them with the idea of gaining the power of eloquence and persuasive flattery.
Africa Makes Its Mark
Here in Africa the English language has been influenced by many new words taken from the vernacular languages. While some of these terms are employed only in Africa, others have become widely used—safari, for example. Safari is a Swahili word meaning ‘to go on a hunting expedition.’ Usually it denotes a trek through thick jungle, along dusty, rough roads, under a hot tropical sun. However, in England today you may go ‘on safari’ in the comfort of modern transport on tarred roads, viewing animals in beautiful parks.
“Mumbo Jumbo” was the name of a West African divinity, and has come to mean senseless talk. On the other hand, “Jumbo” was the name of an elephant, but now is used to refer to anything huge.
In America you may enjoy going to a barbecue, but here in Africa you would be invited to a braaivleis. This is a social occasion when juicy steaks or whole chickens are roasted on a grill over an open fire. A special feature of the menu is boerwors, a well-seasoned, homemade sausage. You may also be invited to try a little liquid refreshment, as well as some sadza and nyama, mealie-meal porridge with roasted meat in a rich sauce of onions and tomatoes. Yes, indeed, your first braaivleis would be a memorable occasion.
Language continues to grow, with new expressions being added all the time. For example, with the Russian launching of the Sputnik spacecraft in 1957, that word became part of the English language. Also, apparently suggested by it were “beatnik” and other “niks.” With the miniskirt we also saw the birth of many other “minis,” such as minicrisis, minibus and miniwar. Now some of the smaller independent states like Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho have been called ministates. Our consciousness of pollution has resulted in such words as ecology, ecosystem, ecocide, ecocrisis, and ecoactivist.
Language truly is interesting, and unusual expressions and idioms do add color to it. Knowing their origins will help us to understand things read, and may aid us to be more expressive in our own writing and speaking. Although we have discussed the origin of only a few unusual English expressions, you may wonder where others originated. If your curiosity gets the better of you, however, be careful not to waste too much time, for your quest may be fruitless. You may find yourself on a ‘wild-goose chase.’
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The little bird that tells the secret
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Does “Damocles’ sword” hang over your head?
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Spare the rod, spoil the child