Archive for ‘why do we say?’

August 23rd, 2013


Gardeners of the world rejoice! Weed month – or Weodmonað, as August used to be called in England – is nearly at an end.  In the Roman calendar, August was, more boringly, called Sextilis, the sixth month.

But where did that August bit come from? From a rather august chap, Augustus Caesar – Julius Caesar’s grandnephew. Caesar was given the name Augustus because he was venerable and worthy, and rather splendid by Roman criteria. You see “august” with a small “a” has the same root as augurs and augment – the Latin word augustus: majestic, noble; that which is increased. One fine Sextilis, Augustus had a series of victories, and it was decided to name the month after him, as July was named after Julius.

Mr August

Mr August

But there was one small problem. A 24 hour problem. At the time, all the months alternated between 30 and 31 days (with February having 30 days in a leap year, and 29 in other years). This meant that August was a day shorter than July, and thus, by inference, that Augustus was inferior to Julius. Such a slur could not be tolerated, so February lost another day to make August equal in stature, and the months after August switched around to reinstate the alternating pattern of length.

Thus August lived up to the second meaning of augustus: that which is increased.

(Other Emperors, in their time, attempted to claim months. If they’d had their way, April would have been “Neronius” and May “Claudius”.)

August 8th, 2013


We’ve been on tenterhooks since the 17th century, which is an awfully long time to be held in suspense.  And that’s exactly what tenter hooks do – yes they are real things, although you don’t tend to see them much anymore. In days of yore, cloth-makers used them to attach fabric that they were making to frames (known, unsurprisingly, as tenters), and leave them to dry and contract. “Tenter” itself is derived from the Latin tendere, to stretch. These tenters were very common, there’d be entire tenter-fields of ‘em. And so that state of tension became known as “on tenters” and then “on tenterhooks”.


July 20th, 2013

Drink like a fish

If you’ve made it through our week of fishisms, you may quite fancy a drink. And if you drink a metaphorical ocean, you’d be drinking like a fish. The phrase can be traced back to 1640 in the line by Fletcher and Shirley: “Give me the bottle, I can drink like a fish now, like an elephant.”

Sadly, drinking like an elephant didn’t capture the public’s imagination, but we’ve been drinking like fish ever since.

drink like a fish

July 19th, 2013

Queer fish

Before “queer” took on any connotations of homosexuality (early in the 20th Century) it simply meant strange or odd. It dates back to the 16th Century, and is thought to come from the German quer, meaning oblique. So why would a strange person be called a “queer fish”? Well, as “kettle of fish” came to mean situation, “fish” became analogous with “being”. Apart from queer fish, there are plenty more fish in the sea. And, if that’s your thing, there are plenty of queer fish in the sea too.

queer fish

July 18th, 2013

Kettle of fish

Alright, we’ve taken the bait, and decided this week is going to be all fish, all the time. Which is a perfectly fine decision  – but not a fine kettle of fish.

fine kettle of fish Before it found its raison d’etre as a boiler of water for tea, kettle was a word used to describe any water boiling implement. In days of yore – specifically the 18th Century days of yore – people used to have neighbourhood parties at which these kettles of fish would be served up. It’s not clear whether the use of “fine kettle of fish” to mean “unsatisfactory state of affairs” was some excellent 18th Century sarcasm, meaning that something was altogether not as pleasant as a picnic, or whether it referred to the aftermath of the picnic, where the kettle of fish carcasses was maybe not so fine.

The phrase “a different kettle of fish” was a descendant of the fine kettle, “kettle of fish” now becoming synonymous with “situation”.

July 17th, 2013

Something fishy

More fish science, wordnerds! We’re veritable ichthyologists here.  When fish are fresh, they don’t smell. Allegedly. But when they’re a bit old, they start smelling. Fishy. And so if a chap is trying to sell you fish off the back of a truck, and it smells like fish, then you’re being offered a dodgy deal. Scale this concept up, and you have the phrase “something fishy going on”, or “something smells fishy”. We’ve been suspicious of fishmongers since the early 1800s, and it appears we still are.


something fishy

July 16th, 2013

Red Herring

This week is all about the stories behind the sayings. Today’s post is the first of five, and might give you a clue as to our theme…or will it?

Here’s a scientific fact for you, wordnerds: when you smoke a herring, it goes red. Well, reddish. In the same way that Mars is red.

red herring

In the 1600s, fugitives who were on the run would allegedly keep some of these babies handy in order to throw them at a suitable moment to confuse any bloodhounds that might be chasing them. And so the term came into use, meaning anything that is used to throw someone off the track.

May 7th, 2013

The writing’s on the wall

This modern sounding phrase comes to us, meaning virtually intact, from Biblical times. Back in the book of Daniel, Belshazzar was partying hard, and God had, apparently, had enough. A disembodied hand appeared, and wrote in glowing letters on the wall “Mene mene tekel upharsin”. This rather disconcerted everyone, and they summoned Daniel to explain what “Mene mene” meant. He interpreted it as meaning God was displeased, and the Babylonian Kingdom was doomed. That night, Belshazzar was killed, and the Persians sacked the Babylonian capital.  Several people have pondered why it was that only Daniel could read the words. Not being Biblical scholars, we’ll stay out of that debate.

The phrase began being used metaphorically to imply inevitable impending doom from the 18th Century. Sources as diverse as Jonathan Swift, PG Wodehouse, and Prodigy have referenced it in their work. It is often taken fairly literally, with activists taking to the walls, and graffiti, to express social and political messages. However should a disembodied hand appear and inscribe flaming words on the wall in front of you, our advice would be to run.


Is there a phrase or saying you’ve always wondered about? Ask us in the comments, and we’ll do our best to answer you in a future “Why do we say”.

November 2nd, 2012

smarty pants

One of our readers, Grace Lanham, asked why we say “smarty pants”.

This is one of those things that etymologists unhelpfully shrug their shoulders over. Smarty pants and smarty boots are both recorded from at least the 1930s to mean someone who thinks they know it all but really don’t. And smarty was used in a derogatory sense as far back as 1850. It seems to fit into the same family as “too big for his breeches”, and possibly is linked to old fashioned habits of children not being allowed to wear long trousers.

October 18th, 2012

donkey’s years

This is a delightful corruption of what seems to be the earlier phrase, donkey’s ears. Whether this was just rhyming slang for years, or whether the length of a donkey’s ears were being used to evoke a long passage of time, is uncertain. However it shifted to donkey’s years, and donkeys have been known to live fairly long lives, so the analogy is not a terrible one in itself.