English, being my second language, has always fascinated and quite often confused me. Many phrases do not make a great deal of sense, especially to someone trying to learn the language. Words like real and reel, which sound the same, or words with wasted letters, such as knee or gnat, certainly confuse the pronunciation. On top of that, you have phrases which have obscure meanings, rooted in very old historic legends.
Some strange phrases, which took a little getting used to include:
White elephant, which means something not particularly useful that often has a very high cost of upkeep. Apparently, the phrase originates in the ancient kingdom of Siam (modern day Thailand). The Siamese King would give live white elephants to people who he did not like. While seemingly kind, having a white elephant is extremely expensive and difficult to keep, as they eat about 200 kg. or 440 lbs. of food a day.
Another strange idiom is, ‘close but no cigar’. It seems carnival games at fairgrounds, used to have cigars as prizes. When someone lost a game by a narrow margin, they would be close but did not receive a cigar.
Has anyone ever given you, ‘the cold shoulder’? In medieval England, it was customary for the dinner host to give his guests a cold piece of shoulder meat (from whatever dish they were eating), as a polite way of saying, it was time to leave.
I always assumed Marvin Gay first coined the phrase, ‘heard it through the grapevine’, but that is not so. It actually dates back to the time of telegraphs. Many people thought the telegraph wiring resembled grapevines so when they received a new message they would say, ‘they heard it through the grapevine’.
You can imagine how strange the phrase, ‘pass with flying colours’ must sound to people who are not familiar with the English language. The origin of this saying dates back to the 1600s, when warships would fly their coloured flags (usually signifying their country) after a victory. If you saw a ship pass with coloured flags flying, you could assume they just won a battle at sea.
Lastly, the phrase, ‘to steal someone’s thunder’, which means to upstage someone, started with John Dennis, a play writer in the early 1700s. He invented a new method for replicating the sound of thunder for his new production. After his play failed and was cancelled, Dennis was outraged when he found out his ‘patented’ thunder sound was being used in a production of Macbeth. Dennis was quoted saying, ‘Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder’.
If you know of any other unique phrases, send them to me and I will include them in my next column on this topic. Until then, it will be our secret. “I certainly won’t let the cat out of the bag’.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube.