I Wonder Where That Came From?

Last year around this time I wrote an article entitled 'The Origin of the Species' and still receive comments about how interesting it was. The story focussed on the origin of some of our common phrases, most of which have their roots in merry olde England.

In fact, the last time I was in England I did a little research after seeing a house with one dining room chair. I was told it stemmed from an old tradition and the chair was reserved for the man of the house, while everyone else sat on the floor. Sometimes a distinguished guest would visit and would be offered the 'chair' for dinner. This was a sign of importance and the guest using the chair became known as the 'chair man'.

Personal hygiene was lacking in those good old days and people seldom bathed, resulting in a development of acne scars. The women would spread bee's wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman's face she was told, 'Mind your own bee's wax'. Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the term 'crack a smile'. In addition, when they sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt causing one to, 'lose face.'

Apparently, these 17th century people only bathed twice a year (May and October). Men would therefore shave their heads (because of lice and bugs) and wear wigs. Wealthy men could afford good wigs made from wool. They couldn't wash the wigs, so to clean them they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig large and fluffy, hence the term 'Big wig', a term still used today to denote power and wealth.

When someone says 'I charged an arm and a leg', think back to the days long before photography when a person’s likeness was either sculpted or painted. Some paintings would show dignitaries standing behind a desk with one arm behind their back while others showed both legs and arms. Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people in the portrait, but by the number of limbs that were to be painted. Arms and legs being limbs started the expression, 'It will cost you an arm and a leg.' (Artists know hands and arms are more difficult to paint.)

Politicians in the old days weren’t off the hook either. Prior to radio, TV, etc., in an effort to obtain feedback from the public, they would send their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars and told them to 'go sip' some ale and listen to people's conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were dispatched at different times and told to 'Go sip here' and 'Go sip there.' The two words 'go sip' were eventually combined.

So, I have pretty well given you ‘The whole nine yards', when it comes to the origin of some common phrases. During WWII, airplanes were armed with belts of bullets used during dogfights and on strafing runs. The belts, which measured 27 feet, were folded into the wing compartments that fed the machine guns. Often times, the pilots would return from their missions having expended all of their bullets on various targets. They would say "I gave them the whole nine yards", meaning they used up all of their ammunition.

There are many interesting expressions in our language, even though some of them don’t make sense and when people use them you have to wonder if ‘they are playing with a full deck... hmm, I wonder where that expression came from?

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