The origin of phrases: Part nine

by Stratton Craig

image overlay

If you like nature, you’ll love these idioms. Actually that’s not strictly factual but hopefully you’ve landed here because you like language or history so at the very least it’s worth a read.
Down to earth
Meaning: Someone who is humble, not boastful.
Origin: There’s very little information around the origins of this phrase but sources agree that it likely developed from the idea that to have your feet firmly on the ground means to be ‘rooted’, sensible etc. It may be that this particular phrase began as part of a longer one, along the lines of ‘bringing that person down to earth with a bang’.
Sea change
Meaning: A transformation or radical change.
Origin: Sources agree that Shakespeare was the first to use this phrase, in his 1610 play The Tempest. In the script, Ariel sings:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

Sell down the river
Meaning: To betray someone.
Origin: This phrase has a gloomy history, originating from the days when slaves were traded around the Mississippi river in the US. Those slaves in the northern part of the region who caused their owners trouble were literally sold down the river to the southern states. Slaves kept in these plantations were said to endure much harsher conditions. The figurative meaning didn’t appear until 1927, when P.G.Wodehouse wrote: ‘When Sigsbee Waddington married for the second time, he to all intents and purposes sold himself down the river’ (Small Bachelor).
A rising tide lifts all boats
Meaning: The idea that when the economy is healthy, everybody will benefit from it.
Origin: US President John F Kennedy said in his speech at the Municipal Auditorium in Canton, Ohio, 1960: ‘I think we must develop our natural resources. You cannot bring industry into Ohio unless you have clean rivers. I think the greatest asset that has happened to Ohio during the last few years, except for Governor Di Salle’s election, was the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and I was proud, though I came from Massachusetts, to vote for it, because it is a national asset and a rising tide lifts all boats. If Ohio moves ahead, so will Massachusetts.’
There’s more where that came from…in part six we looked at ANIMALS, part seven covered CLOTHING, part eight was MUSIC. Keep your eyes peeled for the final instalment soon!

Sign up to hear from us