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The Origin of the Species – III

Quite often I hear people speak and use phrases, which have become part of our language. Interestingly enough, the origins of many of these idioms is quite obscure. Every few years I source out where these expressions originated, and pen them in this article called, ‘the Origin of the Species’.

The first one, Armed to the Teeth, has its roots in medieval warriors, who were often so laden with weapons that sometimes they would have to carry one in their teeth.

Another widely used phrase is, Back to Square One - meaning back to the beginning. The phrase originated in the 1930s when the first radio broadcasts of football matches were made by the BBC. To help listeners keep track of the game, The Radio Times devised a numbered grid system which they published in the magazine, enabling commentators to indicate to listeners exactly where the ball was on the pitch. ‘Square One’ was the goalkeeper’s area, and whenever the ball was passed back to him, play was referred to as being ‘back to square one’.

Quite often, when people want you to carry out a task against the doer’s wishes, with something that ‘has to be done’, they will tell you to, Bite the Bullet. This phrase is commonly thought to originate with soldiers biting down on bullets in lieu of anesthetic during battlefield surgery, but its history can be traced back even further, to the British Empire during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Bullets of the time used grease made of cow fat to hold the missile in the cartridge. Before they could be fired, the two parts had to be bitten apart and the base filled with gunpowder. In times of battle, low-ranking Hindu soldiers - to whom cows are sacred animals - were often tasked with separating the cartridges, forcing them, against their wishes, to ‘bite the bullet’.

The term, ‘Blackmail’ means to demand money by threats, usually involving violence or the exposing of secrets. The phrase originated in the Scottish Highlands in the 1600s. The ‘mail’ in blackmail is from the old Scottish word for rent, usually spelled either ‘maill’ or ‘male’. In those days rent was paid in silver coins - known as ‘white money’ or 'white maill'. When Highland clan chiefs began a protection racket, threatening farmers with violence if they didn’t pay, this additional rent became known as ‘black money’. As such ‘black maill’ was used to describe the practice of obtaining money by threat of violence.

During the 1900s, when criminals first began demanding money not to divulge a person's secrets, the word ‘blackmail’ was adopted to describe this. Let me know if you have any favourite sayings and I will delve into their history and publish them when next I write, ‘The Origin of the Species’

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