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Origin of the Species III

The English language has some fantastic phrases, expressions and idioms. Many of which we use every day and have very little knowledge of their origin.

Every year or so, I have the opportunity to write a column with some of the meanings behind some of the phrases. This year I have gathered a number of expressions, which I find myself using on a regular basis. Now I know where they came from.

Have you ever heard someone say “They are as Mad as a Hatter.”? Surprisingly, this phrase does not have anything to do with Lewis Caroll or Alice in Wonderland. Instead, it dates back to 17th Century France, when everyone wore hats. In order to strengthen the material, hat makers would use mercury in the felt. This caused a poisonous effect known as the “Mad Hatter Disease”, and was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear ‘mad’.

Another great phrase is “Turn a Blind Eye”, when you wish to ignore something. Back in the day, British Naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, was blind in one eye. During a Naval battle he wanted to attack a Danish fleet of ships, but British forces signaled for him to stop attacking. He held up a telescope to his blind eye and said, “I do not see the signal.” He attacked, nevertheless, and was victorious.

Have you ever been “Caught Red Handed”? It may surprise you to know that this saying, which is used daily by millions, originates from an old English law that punished a person for butchering an animal that wasn’t his own. The only way the person could be convicted is if he was caught with the animal’s blood still on his hands.

“Giving Someone a Cold Shoulder” may have you thinking of turning your back to them. This phrase, however, dates back to medieval England. Custom dictated that, when you wanted a dinner guest to leave, it was customary to give them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of mutton, pork, or beef chop. This was a polite way to communicate, that they had over stayed their welcome.

When something is short lived we often refer to it as “A Flash in the Pan”. This phrase comes from an old type of gun that had a little pan on top where a trail of powder was placed from the flint to the charge. Every now and then the powder ignited, causing a spark, but the gun didn’t go off. It was therefore known as “A Flash in the Pan.”

Have you ever irritated someone or tried to “Get Their Goat”? This has nothing to do with farming, instead finding its roots in horse racing. Sometimes horses that were nervous were calmed down by placing a goat in the stall with them. This worked however, jealous horse owners, who wanted to ensure their own victory would sometimes steal, or ‘get’, these goats, thereby upsetting the horse and making it likely to lose the race.

“Letting the Cat Out of the Bag”, is hiding something and then telling everyone. This phrase comes from the old days when farmers would bring suckling pigs to market to be sold. They would wrap the pigs in a bag and the odd, unscrupulous farmers, would substitute a cat for the pig. If someone was skeptical they would open the bag and let the cat out, uncovering the deception.

Next time someone wows you with one of these phrases you can throw their origin right back at them, for now you are “Armed to the Teeth”.