Researchers find English idioms have gone to pot

During its long evolution from dialects introduced by Germanic invaders in the 5th century, the English language has been peppered with curious phrases.

And as the British Empire expanded from the 17th century onwards, a few choice sayings from conquered lands were also introduced.

So it’s unsurprising that a number of everyday expressions have blood-curdling origins.

According to researchers, the phrase “gone to pot” may be accepted today as meaning something which isn’t as good as it once was.

The reality is much more sinister. The expression actually dates back to a time in the Middle Ages when people were boiled to death as a punishment for serious crimes.

Many professionals, particularly journalists, are familiar with the phrase “meeting a deadline”.

However, the saying comes from the American Civil War, when prisoners of war and convicts were sometimes kept in camps with no fencing.

Instead, a line was drawn on the ground and if the prisoners crossed over it, they were shot.

In these times of austerity the phrase “paying through the nose” is often heard muttered by disgruntled people who complain their wallets are being squeezed by taxes.

The Government hasn’t as yet given Revenue the power to inflict bodily harm on those who don’t cough up.

But Vikings had a gruesome punishment for tax defaulters, slitting their nose from its tip to top. Hence the phrase “paying through the nose”.

Today, pulling a person’s leg is supposed to signal a light-hearted attempt to wind somebody up.

However, back in 18th and 19th century London, the phrase meant something altogether different.

Back then, gangs of muggers would literally upend their victims with rugby-style tackles before whipping the valuables from their stunned targets.

The origins of many phrases have been collated by Genes Reunited, a British and Irish-based family history website.

Its head, Rhoda Breakell, said that the English language was peppered with unusual sayings, the real meaning of which were misinterpreted today.

“It’s fascinating just how different our modern interpretations are to the origins of these phrases. It goes to show how the lives of our ancestors have influenced our day-to-day lives in ways we do not even understand,” she said.

Another example is “rule of thumb”.

Today that’s construed as doing something by the book, or a practical approach to problem- solving.

But the researchers found out that it meant something completely different and were able to point to an article in an 1886 edition of the Glasgow Herald to support this.

According to a court case report, the phrase has its origins in a ruling made by Judge Francis Buller.

He said that “a man was entitled to beat his wife with a stick, provided it was no thicker than his thumb”.

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