top of page


Sitting sequestered in my house gave me an opportunity to reflect on some traditions from back in the day. Last time I was in England, I did a little research, after seeing a house with one dining room chair. I was told it stemmed from an old tradition, and the chair was reserved for the man of the house, while everyone else sat on the floor. Sometimes, a distinguished guest would visit and would be offered the ‘chair’ for dinner. This was a sign of importance, and the guest using the chair became known as the ‘chairman’. Personal hygiene was lacking in those good old days and people seldom bathed, resulting in a development of acne scars. The women would spread bee’s wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if a woman stared at another woman’s face, she was told, ‘Mind your own bee’s wax’. Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the term ‘crack a smile’. In addition, when they sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt, causing one to, ‘lose face.’ Apparently, these 17th century people only bathed twice a year, May and October. Men would therefore shave their heads, because of lice and bugs, and wear wigs. Wealthy men could afford good wigs made from wool. They couldn’t wash the wigs, so to clean them they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell, and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig large and fluffy, hence the term ‘Big wig’, a term still used today to denote power and wealth. When someone says, ‘They charged me an arm and a leg’, think back to the days long before photography, when a person’s likeness was sculpted or painted. Some paintings would show dignitaries standing behind a desk with one arm behind their back, while others showed both legs and arms. Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people were in the portrait, but by the number of limbs to be painted. Arms and legs being limbs started the expression, ‘It will cost you an arm and a leg.’ Politicians in the old days weren’t off the hook either. Prior to radio, TV, etc., in an effort to obtain feedback from the public, they would send their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars, and told them to ‘go sip’ some ale and listen to people’s conversations and political concerns. They dispatched many assistants, at different times, and told to ‘Go sip here’ and ‘Go sip there.’ The two words ‘go sip’ were eventually combined to create ‘gossip’ I have pretty well given you ‘the whole nine yards’, when it comes to the origin of some common phrases. During WWII, they armed airplanes with belts of bullets used during dogfights, and on strafing runs. The belts, which measured 27 feet, were folded into the wing compartments that fed the machine guns. Often, the pilots would return from their missions, having expended all of their bullets on various targets. They would say “I gave them the whole nine yards”, meaning, they used up all of their ammunition. There are many interesting expressions in our language, even though some of them don’t make sense. When people use them you have to wonder if ‘they are playing with a full deck…’. Hmm, I wonder where that expression came from?

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, published author, award winning photographer and keynote speaker. Watch his new show ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’ on Rogers TV, the Standard online and YouTube.

4 views0 comments


bottom of page