By Jonathan van Bilsen
It is again time to look at some of the origins of phrases in the English language. Digging deep, I find it interesting to see the meanings behind some commonly used expressions.
For example, the Louvre Palace in France was believed to have a network of listening tubes, so it would be possible to hear everything said in different rooms. People say this is how Queen Catherine de’ Medici discovered political secrets and plots. Hence the phrase, ‘beware, the walls have ears’.
Another saying is ‘bury the hatchet’. This comes from negotiations between Puritans and Indigenous men, who would bury all of their weapons, making them inaccessible, while they were dialoguing.
Have you ever been caught ‘red handed’ and wondered where the saying came from? There was an old law stating, if someone butchered an animal which did not belong to him, he would only be punished if he was caught with blood on his hands. If one was caught with the meat, but his hands were clean, he would not be punished.
When referring to one’s family over friends, the term ‘blood is thicker than water’ often comes up. Even though many might think this saying means we should put family ahead of friends, it actually meant the complete opposite. The full phrase was “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” and it referred to warriors who shared the blood they shed in battles together. These ‘blood brothers’ were said to have stronger bonds than biological brothers.
Many people think the phrase ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ comes from the Trojan Horse story, but actually it stems back to when people were buying a horse. They would determine the horse’s age and condition based on its teeth, and then decide whether they wanted to buy it or not. This is the reason why people use this idiom to say, it is rude to look for flaws in a thing which was given to you as a gift.
If people pretend not to notice, one might say ‘turn a blind eye.' This phrase originates with naval hero Horatio Nelson, who used his blind eye to look through his telescope. This way he was able to avoid signals from his superior, who wanted him to withdraw from battle. He attacked, nevertheless, and was victorious.
When leaving a party, you can often hear someone say ‘one for the road’. During the middle ages, the condemned ones were taken to their execution, through, what today is known as Oxford Street. During this final trip, the cart would stop, and they would be allowed to have one final drink before their death.
If you have any interesting sayings and their origins, send them to me here.
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.