The fifth instalment in our Etymology series means you’ve seen us cover the history of proverbs, the history of idioms and the history of portmanteaus, and the history of similes. Let’s dive deeper into the history of metaphors.
To say that there is an ‘elephant in the room’ means that there is an obvious issue or situation that people do not want to talk about. It is thought that the phrase originates in the U.S but exactly when or where is not known. However, the phrase dates from at least the 1950s; the first known reference being in 1952 in The Charleston Gazette where it reads “Chicago, that’s an old Indian word meaning get that elephant out of your room”. In this case, the author’s meaning isn’t clear but we can be sure he was being ironic.
The first reference with a clear meaning as we know it now comes from the title of Typpo and Hastings’ book – ‘An elephant in the living room: a leader’s guide for helping children of alcoholics’ from 1984.
This phrase is extremely old and first appears in Old English in AD 885 in a work called ‘Gregory’s Pastoral Care’ credited to King Alfred (the Great) of Wessex.
In 1600, Shakespeare used the phrase in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The line is “Flower of this purple dye, hit with Cupid’s archery, sink in apple of his eye”.
It also appears in the Bible, in Deuteronomy 32:10, (King James Version, 1611) for example. The passage is “he found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye”. It also appears in Zechariah 2:8: “for thus saith the LORD of hosts; After the glory hath he sent me unto the nations which spoiled you: for he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye”.
The phrase became more popular after 1816 when it was used in Sir Walter Scott’s novel ‘Old Mortality’ in the line “Poor Richard was to me as an eldest son, the apple of my eye”.
Although nobody is certain of where this phrase originates there are many theories. One of these theories is that it derives from mythology. Sailors associated dogs and wolves with rain because they were said to be attendants of Odin, the God of storms. Cats, known to be witches familiars, were supposed to have ‘ridden the wind’, although there isn’t much evidence to back this theory up.
Another theory is that in heavy rain cats and dogs were quite often washed from roofs. This theory is backed up by an email that began to circulate in 1999 which included: “I’ll describe their houses a little. You’ve heard of thatch roofs, well that’s all they were. Thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath. They were the only place for the little animals to get warm. So all the pets; dogs, cats and other small animals, mice, rats, bugs, all lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery so sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Thus the saying, “it’s raining cats and dogs.” This theory, however, is understandably widely disputed.
The most likely theory as to the origin of this phrase is simply the fact that, in 17th and 18th century England the streets were littered with dead animals (and far worse) and heavy rain would often carry these dead animals and any other debris down the streets. Jonathan Swift’s 1710 poem ‘Description of a City Shower’ describes this: “Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down, threat’ning with Deluge this devoted Town […] Sweeping from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood, Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud, Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood”.
A variation of the phrase was used in Richard Brome’s 1653 ‘The City Wit or The Woman Wears the Breeches’ where they refer to stormy weather as “It shall raine… Dogs and Polecats”.
Jonathan Swift makes another appearance as the first known user of the version of the phrase we use today. It is found in his ‘A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation’ from 1738; “I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs”.
The word ‘peeled’ is derived from an old verb ‘pill’, meaning ‘to plunder’ (which is also where the word ‘pillage’ comes from). ‘Pill’ itself is derived from its Latin root ‘pilare’ meaning ‘to take the hair off, pluck’ but which also had the metaphorical meaning of ‘plunder’ or ‘cheat’. From the 17th century ‘pill’ was commonly spelt ‘peel’ and took on the meaning ‘to remove or strip’, as in removing an outer covering.
This expression (as well as a variation of it) appeared in American newspaper The Political Examiner in 1833. The meaning was not explained so it is thought that it was already in widespread use by then. The passage read: “I wish I may be shot if I don’t think you had better keep your eyes skinned so that you can look powerful sharp, lest we get rowed up the river this heat”. It seems that at this time ‘keep you eyes skinned’ was the more common variation of this phrase until the 1850s where it changed to ‘keep your eyes peeled’.
Another theory is that the phrase dates back to 1820s in Britain, when Sir Robert Peel established the first organised police force. As with today, the officers were known as ‘bobbies’ but they were also apparently known as ‘peelers’. This apparently comes from the fact they were expected to be particularly observant.
A literal melting pot is a vessel in which metals are melted. However, the metaphorical meaning of the phrase ‘melting pot’ was originally a reference to the process of immigrants being assimilated into American life. It later, and quite naturally, came to mean the ‘fusing’ together of different nationalities or ethnic groups in America. To this day, the term is still quite flexible. It is thought that the phrase derives from the 1908 play ‘The Melting Pot’ written by Israel Zangwill. Although he didn’t invent the metaphor itself, he certainly popularized it.
The first known reference of ‘melting pot’ used in it’s metaphorical sense was in 1783 in French-American writer and farmer Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s ‘Letters from an American Farmer’. In the 19th century German immigrants were known to refer to a ‘Schmelztiegel’ which translates to ‘melting pot’. Around the 1850s Ralph Waldo Emerson (an American writer and leader of the transcendentalist movement) described America as a “smelting pot”; welcoming and praising the culturally and racially mixing within the country. This was highly controversial at the time, probably why these remarks weren’t published until 1912.
The term ‘melting pot’ has had its controversies due to the nature of the topic with anti-immigrationists in the 1920s referring to a ‘melting pot mistake’ and the sensitivity of the term being called into question as recently as 2015. Others argue that calling America a ‘melting pot’ is just a fact due to the high degree of assimilation in America and that multiculturalism should be celebrated.
There are many variations of this expression that replace ‘short’ with ‘rough’, ‘blunt’, ‘sh**ty’, for example but they mainly carry the same meaning of getting the worse end of a deal (there are also the less common ‘long’ and ‘right’ end of the stick but these were added later simply as antonyms). There is also the similar expression – ‘the wrong end of the stick’ which has come to mean ‘being mistaken’. However, it is thought that this wasn’t always the case. The first known reference to this expression is from 1542 in Nicolas Udall’s ‘Apophthegmes’ and is actually referred to the ‘worse end of the staff’ written as: “As often as thei see theim selfes to haue the wurse ende of the staffe in their cause”.
Soon afterwards in 1562 John Heywood published ‘The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood’. He stated that in the 16th century, ‘the wrong end of the stick’ and ‘the worst end of the stick’ meant the same thing. It is thought that the meaning of ‘the wrong end of the stick’ only changed around the mid 19th century. The earliest known reference is in the British political magazine ‘The New Monthly Magazine’ in 1850. It states “I am so stupid – I am so apt to take things up in a wrong light. In fact, I am always getting hold of the wrong end of the stick”.
As ‘the short end of the stick’ doesn’t make a whole lot of sense literally, there are theories that ‘short’ is a euphemism for ‘sh*t’. This variation of the phrase was known by at least the mid 19th century where it could be found in ‘The Swell’s Night Guide’.
On the other hand, there is some argument to be made for the fact that at some point in the 19th century, the ‘short of of the stick’ seems to have been a literal thing. What this actually means is unclear to us now.
Though ‘spill’ has been used a verb meaning ‘to divulge’ or ‘to let out’ since the 16th century, the earliest known uses of the phrase ‘spill the beans’ only dates back to the 20th century. At this time, in the U.S, it had a different meaning of spoiling someone’s plans or causing trouble.
In 1911 the phrase was used in ‘The Van Wert Daily’ to mean ‘upsetting a stable situation by speaking out of turn’ which is closer to how it is used today. This reads: “ Finally Secretary Fisher, of the President’s cabinet, who had just returned from a trip to Alaska, was called by Governor Stubbs to the front, and proceeded, as one writer says, to ‘spill the beans’”.
Another less plausible theory, is that the expression is reference to an ancient Greek voting system. According to this theory white beans indicated positive votes and black beans negative. The votes had to be unanimous so if any of the black beans were seen before the vote was completed (if the beans were ‘spilled’) then vote was stopped. However, as mentioned earlier, findings of the phrase ‘spill the beans’ are only found from the 20th century so the timings for this theory don’t match up.
To ‘turn over a new leaf’ means to reform. Technically, the origin of this phrase is unknown but there are theories.
Firstly, and quite simply, pages of books have been referred to ‘leaves’ in the past. It is therefore believed that the metaphor was a reference to turning a new ‘page in your life’.
Not really a theory, but more of an anecdote, is that while Oscar Wilde was serving time in prison for homosexuality a friend told him to ‘turn over a new leaf’ (in this case we assume this means to refrain from homosexual activity). Wilde promised to do so but when he was released he went back to his ‘old ways’. When he was asked why he said that he hadn’t ‘reached the bottom of the page yet’ or something to that effect.
This expression seems to originate in 19th century America. The first known example is from the ‘Milwaukee Daily Sentinel and Gazette’ in 1839. It reads: “And we ask one question that they dare not firmly answer, whether they are not now making a tolerable attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the people.”
Naturally, the most popular theory is that the phrase derives from woolen wigs that were popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, this is disputed at these kinds of wigs had mainly died out by the 19th century. In European courts this tradition continues but not so much in the U.S.
It is thought that this phrase originated in early 20th century America but variations of the expression are known to exist in other cultures. The earliest known recording of the phrase ‘between a rock and a hard place’ is from the American Dialect Society’s publication ‘Dialect Notes V’ from 1921 which reads: “To be between a rock and a hard place, …to be bankrupt. Common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California.”
This refers to the ‘US Bankers’ panic’ of 1907, a financial crisis that was especially damaging to the mining and railroad industries of the western states. Ten years later in 1917 this financial crisis led to disputes between the mining companies and the mineworkers, with the workers demanding higher pay and better conditions in which to work. The mining companies refused these demands and deported a lot of the workers to New Mexico. It’s plausible that due to the choice the workers faced between hard, underpaid work and unemployment and poverty this is where the phrase is derived from.
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