The origin of phrases: part two

by Stratton Craig

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Part One broke the ice and we hope it was up to scratch. This time round we’re hoping to be the flea’s eyebrows with part two of our series looking at the origin of phrases we often use and rarely question.
The Bee’s Knees
Meaning: Something desirable or of very high quality
Origin: The original meaning of this cute little phrase makes much more sense than its current meaning. In the late 18th Century it was used to describe something small and insignificant. Now, however, it means something special. This came about from 1920’s American slang, which involved using the features of an animal or insect to describe something outstanding, i.e. the cat’s whiskers. It is thought that the phrase was as part of this slang simply because it fitted nicely with the rest (most of which haven’t survived, i.e. the flea’s eyebrows and the canary’s tusks).
Letting the cat out of the bag (our favourite so far!)
Meaning: Revealing a secret
Origin: It is thought this very visual saying comes from the Middle Ages, when piglets were sold in sacks at market. Pig sellers would try to cheat buyers by putting a cat in the bag instead of a piglet. If the cat got out the secret was revealed.
Cold feet
Meaning: Suddenly becoming unsure about something
Origin: There are a number of differing opinions as to the origins of this term. However, perhaps the most convincing and widely held is that it’s a term coined by the military to describe soldiers with cold or frozen feet and therefore who had to proceed slowly.
Turning a blind eye
Meaning: Pretending not to notice something
Origin: Possibly the result of battlefield myth, the phrase was said to have been coined during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. When his superior officer was said to have flagged the signal to withdraw, Horatio Nelson supposedly lifted a telescope to his bad eye and said: “I really do not see the signal”. He went on to lead them to victory, possibly as a direct result of ‘turning a blind eye’.
Paint the town red
Meaning: Have a big night out
Origin: The most commonly held belief is that this phrase was born following a legendary night of drunken debauchery involving the Marquis of Waterford. Melton Mowbray, home to the pork pie, was the victim, with the Marquis’ group of friends vandalising doors and windows. To top it all off they painted numerous doors, a swan statue and a tollgate with red paint.
Catch up on Part One
Join us for Part Three’s Wild Goose Chase

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