Ever wonder about those interesting expressions that have been handed down through the centuries? Phrases that we all use without giving any thought to where they came from and their original meaning? Here's a list of ten such expressions a friend emailed to me. Let's take a look at the historical origin of these expressions.
1) God willing and the Creeks don't rise
This expression was originally in reference to the Native American Creek tribe and not a body of water and is attributable to Benjamin Hawkins, a late 18th century politician. While in the south, he was requested by the President to return to Washington. In his response, he wrote, God willing and the Creeks don't rise. Since he capitalized the word Creeks, it was assumed he was referring to the Indian tribe rather than water.
2) It cost an arm and a leg
Since there weren't any cameras in George Washington's day, the only way to portray someone's image was either through sculpture or painting. Some paintings of Washington show him standing behind his desk with one arm behind his back while others show both arms and legs. Prices charged by artists were often calculated according to how many arms and legs were being painted rather than the number of people in the painting. Therefore, if the subject wanted both arms and legs in the painting, they were told, "Okay, but it will cost an arm and a leg."
3) Here comes the big wig
As ludicrous as it sounds today, back then men and women took baths only twice a year (usually May after the cold winter and October after a hot summer). Women covered their hair and men shaved their heads and wore wigs. The wealthy could afford good wigs made of wool. Since the wool wigs couldn't be washed, they would hollow out a loaf of bread and put the wig in the shell, then bake it for half an hour. The heat made the wigs big and fluffy, thus the term big wig. Today we use the expression when someone appears to be powerful and wealthy.
4) Chairman of the Board
Many houses in the late 1700s consisted of a large room with only one chair. A long wide board folded down from the wall and was used for dining. The head of the household always sat in the chair while everyone else sat on the floor while eating. To sit in the chair meant you were important and in charge and that person was referred to as the chair man. Today in business, we use the expression Chairman of the Board.
5) Crack a smile and other related phrases
One result of the lack of personal hygiene back then was that many men and women developed acne scars by adulthood. Women would spread bee's wax over their faces to smooth out their complexions. If a woman began to stare at another woman's face, she was told to mind your own bee's wax. If a woman smiled, the wax would crack, hence the term crack a smile. And when a woman sat too close to the fire the wax would melt, giving us the expression losing face.
6) Straight laced
Ladies wore corsets which laced up the front. A proper and dignified woman wore a tightly tied corset and was said to be straight laced.
7) Not playing with a full deck
Back in the day, a common form of entertainment was playing cards. When a tax was levied on the cards, it was applicable only to the ace of spades. To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards and ignore the ace of spades. Since most card games require all 52 cards, those people were thought to be stupid because they were not playing with a full deck.
Long ago, before the creation of mass communication such as phones, radio, and television (and certainly the internet), politicians sent their assistants to local taverns to get feedback from the public and determine which issues people considered important. They were told to go sip some ale and listen to people's conversations. The two words go sip were eventually combined into one word, gossip, when referring to the local opinion.
9) Minding your P's and Q's
In the local taverns, people drank from pint and quart sized containers. One of the bar maid's jobs was to keep track of which customers were drinking from pints and which from quarts, hence the phrase minding your P's and Q's.
And finally an expression that has often been misinterpreted…
10) Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey
Back in the day when sailing ships ruled the waves, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons that fired iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a supply of cannon balls near the cannon while at the same time preventing them from rolling around the deck. The best storage method was a square-based pyramid with one ball perched on four balls resting on nine which sat on sixteen providing a supply of thirty cannon balls stacked in a small area next to the cannon. There was a problem, though—how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding out from under the others. The solution was a metal plate called a monkey with sixteen round indentations. But again, there was a problem. If the plate was made from iron, the iron cannon balls would quickly rust to it, especially in the damp ocean air. The solution to the rusting problem was to make brass monkeys. But still a problem…brass contracts much more and much quicker than iron when it's chilled. So, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannonballs would come right off the monkey which means it was literally cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Not what you were expecting? :)