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.
It turns out that Daniel Chester French was a sought after sculptor and in 1920 was appointed to create the magnificent Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial. Like so many other artists, French was also plagued by the challenges of reproducing hands, and he decided to use the exact same mold of the hands on his Woolcott Statue from 1907, to create that of Lincoln. All he had to do was enlarge the appendages and his life became much easier.
Another gem of wordsmithing eminence is the phrase ‘Saved by the Bell’. One would assumed it has something to do with prize fighting or wrestling, but alas, it dates back to the sixteen hundreds when people, once they had died, were often buried too soon thereafter. Upon exhumation many caskets had scratch marks on the inside lid, indicating the occupant was not dead upon burial.
Wealthy patrons decided they would fight this grave injustice by having a small bell placed on a stick above their grave. A cord ran from the bell, through the ground into the casket. If they woke after burial they would simply tug on the string and the bell would ring. Someone would hear it and quickly dig them up, and they were ‘Saved by the Bell”.
The term ‘Dead Ringer’, has nothing to do with this, as it refers to a horse that may be substituted for another to defraud bookies. A Dead Ringer meant an exact duplicate.
One other interesting bit of history, although it does not refer to a locution, was the skirmish which began the American Revolution. It seems several British soldiers were attempting to subdue a small crowd in Boston. In an effort to get some help, one of the townspeople decided to ring the church bell. Upon hearing the bell, which was also used to announce fires and imminent dangers, someone yelled “fire”. The handful of soldiers took it to mean an order from their superior and fired their weapons at the townsfolk. Five people were killed, which became known as the Boston massacre and the start of the revolution… and here I thought it was all about someone spilling a cup of tea in the harbour.