The origin of phrases – Part three

by Stratton Craig

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If you follow @strattoncraig on Twitter you might’ve seen our post about the origins of ‘o’clock’…it’s below if you missed it, along with the history of a few other weird and wonderful phrases we use often and rarely question.
Origin: O’clock is short for ‘of the clock’ and was used to differentiate between time told by clock and by moon or sun.
Wild Goose Chase
Meaning: A hopeless or foolish search for something unattainable
Origin: First used in print by William Shakespeare, this phrase was probably not coined by him but more likely he was the first to write down an already popular phrase. But in Romeo and Juliet, the phrase was used to describe a horse race, with the v-formation flown in by geese resembling horses racing with a leader of the pack.
Red herring
Meaning: A distraction from the main event
Origin: According to 1,000 English Idioms explained, this is a fox hunting phrase. Hounds could be distracted by the very strong aroma of red herring, either to divert them off course or to train them to follow a scent.
By and large
Meaning: On the whole / generally speaking
Origin: A nautical term from the 16th Century when the word large was used to describe a ship sailing with the wind, rather than against it. The term ‘by and large’ was an extension of this and described the action of trawling the seas in any direction relative to the wind.
The third degree
Meaning: A long interrogation
Origin: The most likely origin of this commonly used phrase is from the Freemasons. This fraternal organisation is notoriously difficult to become a member of and those wishing to progress up the chain to become ‘third degree’ members must undergo rigorous questioning to get there.
Taken aback
Meaning: Surprised or caught off guard
Origin: Like by and large, this is another nautical term. It was originally used to describe a manoeuvre used to change direction quickly, stop suddenly or even reverse, in order to avoid the unexpected emergence of rocks or reef. Originally ‘taking aback’, which referred to the position of the sails.
Catch up on Part One
Read the previous collection: Part Two
See us swing into action in Part Four

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