It Costs and Arm and a Leg… Really?

Whenever I hear a phrase or reference to things of old, I find myself intrigued by the origin of the words. I have written several columns for CAPS over the years, which deal with the origins of some key idioms and have collected a few more, which I would like to share.

I have often walked into a store or found myself in a retail environment and heard people say, ‘It costs an arm and a leg”. A rather strange saying, which seems to have nothing to do with the fees associated with a product.

It all goes back to medieval times when aristocrats or people of influence wanted to have their portraits painted. They would commission an artist, and schedule a sitting, but soon learned that the most difficult part of the anatomy to capture on canvas was hands and feet. This was mostly due to size perspective and a vane desire by the subjects to have perfect looking limbs. It was for this reason artists would charge for each hand and each foot.

A famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which hangs in the main rotunda of the Massachusetts State Capital building, shows Abraham Lincoln, with one hand behind his back. This commissioned work was painted early in the politician’s career, before his noteworthiness became known to all Americans.

Another statue in the same Capitol building is that of politician Roger Woolcott, sitting in a monstrous chair and looking very dignified. The statue is approximately three metres high and was sculpted by Daniel Chester French in 1907. Interestingly enough, the statue has a slight resemblance to that of Abraham Lincoln sitting in Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial.