Wednesday, 22 October 2014

your eyes are bigger than your stomach

This saying means to take more food than you can possibly eat, resulting in waste. Since many cultures have an aversion to wasting food, some version of this slang term is present in many languages, as a reminder to people to take only as much as they need.

The idea is that because you’re hungry, you overestimate your stomach capacity, taking more food than can be eaten comfortably. It can also happen when you’re confronted with extremely rich food; it may seem possible to eat a large portion until you actually bite in and realize that the food is very filling. And, in a buffet, where there is so much food and it all looks so appetizing, it’s tempting to heap up your plate rather than go back for seconds.

The earliest recorded version of this phrase is from George Herbert's Jacula Prudentum (1651): ‘The eye is bigger than the belly.’ 

The Latin title ‘Jacula Prudentum’ translates approximately as ‘short and pointed comments made by judicious men.’ In other words, an aphorism.

There’s no waste of food at my house, though. Whatever I can’t eat goes back in the fridge for another time.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

knickers in a knot

People use this phrase when they are telling you not to become angry or upset about something they don’t think is important.

The original phrase, ‘Knickers in a twist,’ is a Britishism, derived from the British sense of knickers as in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “A short-legged, loose-fitting pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment. In extended use, the shorts worn by boxers, footballers, etc.” It first appeared in the U.K. in 1967. In Australia, they changed it to ‘knickers in a knot.’ Perhaps because they like alliteration? In North America, we sometimes hear the expression as ‘panties in a bunch.’

I’d like to know exactly how one could get one’s knickers in a twist. Perhaps by trying to put both legs through the same hole? But I’m not going to get my panties in a bunch over it.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

shithouse luck

This phrase is used to describe an unlikely occurrence of good fortune or luck. 

The only explanation I could find was that it derives from Celtic or Scottish folklore and occurs when one is out walking in the wilderness or a remote area and happens to come across an outhouse when in dire need of defecating.

It does NOT mean that when I want breakfast I will find eggs, bacon and potatoes in the fridge. That’s not luck; that’s good planning!

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Indian giver

This is an American expression used these days to describe a person who gives a gift (literal or figurative) and later wants it back, or something equivalent in return.

The phrase originated in a cultural misunderstanding that arose when Europeans first encountered Native Americans in the 1600s. Europeans thought they were receiving gifts from Native Americans, while the Native Americans believed they were engaged in bartering; this resulted in the Natives finding European behavior unfair and insulting.

As documented by Lewis and Clark, trading with Native Americans meant that any trade, once consummated, was considered a fair trade. If on one day, they traded beads for a dog from a tribe, then days later, the trade could be reversed and, upon surrendering the beads, the tribe expected the dog back. The original idea of ‘giving’ in this fashion connotes trade (‘I'll give you this, and you give me that’), not gifts or presents.

The phrase was first noted in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson, who characterized an Indian gift as ‘a present for which an equivalent return is expected.’ In the 1997 book The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States, the editor says that although the phrase is often used innocently by children, it may be interpreted as offensive, and The Copyeditor's Handbook (1999) describes it as objectionable. If I were a Native American, I would certainly find it offensive.

The term may actually have been coined to denigrate the native race. Historians would now agree that, where deceit was concerned, it was the settlers who were most guilty. It isn't uncommon for the conquering race to attempt to justify their invasion by dismissing the conquered as dishonest and stupid.

‘Indian’ was once used by the white man as an all-purpose adjective signifying ‘false,’ owing to the supposedly low morals of the red man. Thus we have ‘Indian summer,’ false summer late in the year; ‘Indian corn’ and ‘Indian tea,’ cheap substitutes for products the original colonists had known back in England.

The history of this phrase is easy to trace, but I hope it becomes obsolete.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

bite the bullet

We use this phrase when we’re about to endure something unpleasant.

The common explanation is that patients undergoing surgery would be given a stick of wood or a pad of leather to bite to divert their attention from the pain, to protect against biting their own tongues and, not least perhaps, to reduce the amount of screaming. In the circumstances, lead poisoning would probably not have been a concern. 

However, many artists painted scenes of early surgery and none shows patients biting into anything. There's little doubt, though, that they would have been fortified with strong drink.

The phrase dates back to the 18th century. The following entry is the definition of 'nightingale' in Francis Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1796: 
‘Nightingale. A soldier who, as the term is, sings out at the halberts. It is a point of honour in some regiments, among the grenadiers, never to cry out, or become nightingales, whilst under the discipline of the cat of nine tails; to avoid which, they chew a bullet.’

The use of 'bite the bullet' means to 'show courage; display a stiff upper lip', and is appropriately Victorian. Rudyard Kipling wrote a dialogue in the 1891 novel The Light That Failed, which uses the expression where no actual bullet was involved but which alludes to the idea that fortitude can be gained by biting a bullet.

And right now, I'm going to bite the bullet and go do the dishes.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

blood is thicker than water

In practical terms, this is true. Blood is thicker than water. But the proverb is not about the physical properties of blood and water. Today, the expression is taken to mean that our bonds with family are closer than those with outsiders.

However, according to some sages, there is an older phrase that says ‘The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,’ meaning that two men who go through a blood ritual of bonding have a stronger bond than two brothers who shared the waters of the womb.

In the ancient rituals of covenant making, men would often form a bond that involved the shared blood of an animal, and sometimes even cut themselves to share their own blood. Once the covenant was made, it bonded them for life so that they were committed more to each other than to even their own brothers. In other words, the blood that is shed by soldiers on the battlefield makes for stronger bonds than those of the family you happened by chance to be born into.

We in the West are accustomed to say that ‘blood is thicker than water,’ but the Arabs say that blood is thicker than mother's milk. With them, any two children nourished at the same breast are called ‘milk-brothers’ and the tie between such is supposed to be very strong. But the Arabs hold that brothers in the covenant of blood are closer than brothers at a common breast; that those who have tasted each other's blood are in a surer covenant than those who have tasted the same milk together.

When we say that ‘blood is thicker than water,’ we're using the term ‘blood’ in the same sense as ‘blood relations,’ or people in our immediate family. Often, it's used as a means to shame family members who side with friends against their parents or siblings, and you'll hear it used by Mafia members who want to remind each other that their allegiance to the Family is all that matters.

But, if we attribute the opposite meaning to the phrase, it says that relationships forged by choice, such as friendships, can have deeper meaning and thus be more important than those created by mere biology. As has been said very often, ‘You can pick your friends, but you’re stuck with the family you happen to be born into.’ The truth of this is obvious from the many stories about how horrible family members can be towards one another.

On a personal level, one thing that has always disturbed me about this phrase is the idea of giving prime importance to the family no matter how dysfunctional it might be. Some families are truly happy, which gives credence to the socially perpetuated myth that all families are happy and that we owe our first allegiance to our blood relatives. But many are not happy and it comes as no surprise when members of such place their loyalty elsewhere.

The phrase, ‘Blood is thicker than water,’ was first attributed to John Lygates in his Troy Book circa 1492. I could not find a source for ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.’ It sounds rather Biblical and has been said to be a quote from that book, but if so, it would be cited as such on the Internet. It isn’t.

Regardless of where it originated, however, this is a proverb that we must each interpret in our own way.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

go to the mattresses

Yes, I’m still talking about beds, but this one is stretching the connection!

I’d never heard this phrase but the Internet told me it means to prepare for battle or adopt a warlike stance. People who saw The Godfather may remember Sonny saying, “You give ‘em one message: I want Sollozzo. If not, it’s all-out war: we go to the mattresses.”

It apparently originated in 1530 because a soldier who was delegated to defend the city of Florence, Italy hung mattresses on the outside of the tower to minimize damage from cannon fire. It is also said that in times of war or siege, Italian families would vacate their homes and rent apartments in safer areas. In order to protect themselves they would hire soldiers to sleep on the floor in shifts. On mattresses, presumably.

It makes an interesting story, but I’ve certainly heard more war-like phrases.