Tuesday, 22 February 2011

For the Love of Words - Elen Caldecott

We've had some very serious - and important - blog posts lately. But it's half-term in UK schools and I feel a little bit as though school's out too. I went to the aquarium today and then rammed people on dodgems. So I'm feeling high-spirited and hopeful. I've been thinking about how brilliant words are, how evocative and exciting.

One of my favourite things is to discover the origin of words and phrases. The more arcane the better. It's almost as though we speak in ancient spells whose intentions have been lost though the incantations survive.

There are those that come from observing the world around us. Raining cats and dogs, for example, apparently comes from the days when the Brits lived in thatched cottages. The roof would have been the favourite spot for mouse-catching cats. But, when it rained hard, the water would seep into the rafters and drench the cats, who would drop onto the floor, frightening the dogs. So, rain meant animal-based bedlam. Lovely.

So history affects our language, but geography does too. It's rare that I consider anything to be beyong the pale. But it's nice, when I do, to remember that the original pale was the boundary marker around the city of Dublin. Anyone exiled for crimes against the city would be sent beyond the pale. Incidentally, if anyone knows why we ignore people who are sent to Coventry, I'd love to know.

My favourite word-origin is a cultural borrowing. In 18th century France, the cottage-industry weavers were weaving merrily away. Then, suddenly, factories started making cheap fabrics. the French temprament being what it is, the weavers took off their wooden shoes - their sabots - and threw them into the machinery. Thus becoming saboteurs.

I'm also a fan of a Welsh phrase, that hasn't made it into English. But I can always try to sell it to you here. In Wales, if you're behaviour is a bit over the top, melodramatic, unnecessary, people will say that you are going 'over the crockery', because the highest thing in the room is your best plate atop your dresser.

I'd love to learn more. Share your favourites and let's all celebrate the school holidays!
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Pat Posner said...

I love Frog in the Throat. It dates from when people drank water drawn from ponds and streams and accidentally swallowing frogspawn that had been laid there. According to folk tradition, tadpoles could hatch inside the drinker and, eventually, turn into a frog. If the frog found its way back up the drinker's throat it could cause a choke or a loss of voice.

John Dougherty said...

I live in a town with a history of cloth-making; in fact, when the British Army wore red coats, they were clothed in Stroud Scarlet. The cloth was dyed red and then stretched out on the hillside on great frames called tenters. And, of course, it were held there with hooks.

This cloth was pretty expensive, and a great prize for thieves, but if you wanted to nick a length you'd have to take it before the rightful owners came to claim it, which meant taking it whilst the dye was still wet. Which meant, in turn, that it would stain your hands. And if you were caught, you had no chance of pretending you were innocent, because you'd been caught red-handed.

Julie P said...

Great post! I love words and finding out what old expressions mean, so thanks for this!


Simon said...

Two new good ones. Thanks, Pat and John!

Lynn said...

Thanks for such a fun post! And comments.

Expressions are such delightful, colourful things. And it's interesting to see which ones remain local, and which ones have spread out to become somewhat "universal" in a language.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

As a schoolgirl in Oldham when it was icy we made slides or 'slippy curries' in the playground. I think it comes from courir - to run in French. A forward roll was a tipply-top-tail. If you grow old and forgetful in Oldham you are described as yonderly.Shame these wonderful turns of phrase remain local.

Rosalie Warren said...

The expression 'sent to Coventry' comes, I'm told, from a period when soldiers were billeted in Coventry (I don't know what period of history this was) and got a rather poor welcome when the local inhabitants objected to their presence and chose to ignore them.

As a current Coventry-dweller, I'd hope we were more welcoming to our newcomers nowadays.

Lynda - when I was a girl in West Yorkshire we called a forward roll a 'tipple-over-tail' - that's the Lancs/Yorks divide for you!

adele said...

Good post, Elen! Do you know THE WORD DEN? It's a fascinating blog all about words set up by Sally Prue. For both children and adults. Just type THE WORD DEN+ Sally Prue into google and that will get you there.

Savita Kalhan said...

I love this post! Thank you Elen. My son finds word and phrase origins really interesting at the moment, so we're going to hot foot it over to Sally Prue's The Word Den - thanks for that Adele.

Penny Dolan said...

So now I can choose between being over the crockery or a bit yonderly? Like that! Thanks for this post. So much of our history is tied up in words. Even if we've lost our Holy Days to holidays, and the festivals behind them are hidden.

Andrew Strong said...

I love all this stuff - one of my favourite idioms is the Welsh expression 'dimm siawns canary' (no chance canary). Sadly, I don't hear it often and wonder if it's passing out of use. Obviously, it refers to the poor canary taken into the pit to test for poisonous gases.

Leila said...

The other summer I was at a jazz jam in a small village in the Cilento, and the lead sax had a face like a week of wet Sundays. I commented on this to a local friend, and he replied instantly, "Si, sembra che il gatto e morte." = "Yes, he looks like the cat died." This totally cracked me up. Now it's one of our favourite phrases, and we have translated it into English: when someone is a bit of a misery guts, we say to each other "He's a bit dead cat, int he?"

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