Let the cat out of the bag
It’s time for another of those odd articles that many of our readers say are their favourite. This week it’s the origin (or etymology if you’re posh or academic) of phrases we all use but don’t know what they really mean.
First up, the Hair of the Dog. Many of us have sought refuge in this the morning after a good night out, but what does it mean? The expression the hair of the dog, for an alcoholic drink taken to cure a hangover, is a shortening of ‘a hair of the dog that bit you’. It comes from an old belief that someone bitten by a rabid dog could be cured of rabies by taking a potion containing some of the dog’s hair.
Do you know someone who “Gets your goat”, meaning that they irritate you? Well this phrase was derived from a horse racing term. Nervous horses could be calmed down by placing a goat in the stall with them. Dastardly rival horse owners would sometimes steal, or ‘get’, these goats, thereby upsetting the horse and making it likely to lose the race.
Flea Market is more easily explained. It comes from the French marché aux puces, a name originally given to a market in Paris which specialized in shabby second-hand goods of the kind that might contain fleas. The earliest English use of this phrase dates from 1922.
Bite the bullet has come to mean accepting something difficult or unpleasant. Its origin comes from the battlefields when there was no time to administer anesthesia before emergency surgery. The surgeon made patients bite down on a bullet in an attempt to distract them from the pain.
Here’s another couple of phrases that we use whose origins are not pleasant. “Rule of thumb”, meaning a common benchmark. Legend has it that 17th century English Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled it was permissible for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, given that the stick was no wider than his thumb.
“Saved by the bell” meaning being rescued from an unwanted situation has a very dark origin. As scary as it sounds, being buried alive was once a common occurrence. People who feared succumbing to such a fate were buried in special coffins that connected to a bell above ground. At night, guards listened for any bells in case they had to dig up a living person and save them “by the bell.”
Here’s a lighter one. To “Bandy Around” meaning to discuss in a lively fashion. Originally Bandy was a medieval bat-and-ball game, similar to hockey so to ‘bandy’ words is to knock them back and forth as one would bandy a ball.
Shhhh! We’ve got to “Keep Mum”. This old phrase has nothing to do with mothers. It’s derived from the German word for mumble, mummeln. Hundreds of years ago people played a dice game called mumchance, which had to be played in complete silence.
And finally, let’s “Let the cat out of the bag”, meaning to divulge a secret. In times gone by, farmers would bring suckling pigs to market wrapped up in a bag. Unscrupulous ones would substitute a cat for the pig. If someone let the cat out of the bag, their deceit was uncovered.