Take surnames such as Weller, which Charles Dickens gave to two of his characters. That name had its origin in the Middle Ages in the salt industry. From Roman times, on the east coast of England, salt was produced by boiling the brine in lead pans which had been rinsed from sand. Brine contains six different salts which crystalize out at different rates and only the third, sodium chloride, was used for preservation and flavouring. The weller’s job was to collect that particular salt at precisely the right time without it becoming contaminated by the others. Behind that single name, Weller, lies the whole history of a medieval industry on which the entire population depended for its survival over winter.
Even modern-sounding words can have a surprising ancient origin. While researching one of my recent novels, I discovered that phrases such a boozing, fed-up, under the thumb, and old codger are all in fact medieval falconry terms.
Idioms also contain miniature histories. When I first went to work in Nigeria I heard someone say of a man – ‘he went to Lafia and didn’t buy yams.’ I thought this was some comment on his personal shopping habits, until I heard it used about other people. They meant ‘the man is an idiot’. This idiom comes from the fact that the town of Lafia had been an important trading centre since the 16th century and was famed for holding yam markets all year round instead of just seasonally. Yam was a stable food, so you can imagine what a man’s wife would have called her husband if he’d made the long, arduous journey to Lafia and forgotten to buy the most important thing she’d sent him for.I was delighted this week to discover a new book by Philip Gooden and Peter Lewis Idiomantics – The weird and Wonderful world of Popular Phrases, which tells the intriguing stories behind many familiar sayings from around the world. Take the phrase Hobson’s choice, according to the book, it derives from a Thomas Hobson who, in the 16th Century, hired out horses in Cambridge. Fearing that his customers would always choose the fittest animal and would quickly ruin the best horses, he insisted that the customer always took the next horse in line nearest the stable door.
Another example is Eat crow, which does not, as you might imagine, refer to a dish made from birds, but from the 17th century word for an animal’s intestines, which in turn links to a dish made of deer intestines known as an umble pie, a poor man’s supper.
There are so many gems in this book. I had no idea, for example, that Slush fund or Taken aback are both old nautical terms, or Sweet Fanny Adams has its origins in a gruesome murder. Boondoggle – a wonderful American word – apparently comes from the world of cowboys and behind the German expression Potemkinsche Dorfer – Potemkin Villages (Castles in the Air) lies a strange tale involving Catherine the Great of Russia.
I love to think that all of us are ‘speaking history’ every day whether we are ‘putting a flea in someone’s ear’ or just ‘soldiering on’, even if we don’t always know the fascinating stories which lie behind those seemingly ordinary words and phrases. But I’d better stop playing the giddy kipper now and retire for my forty winks. By the way can anyone tell me why it’s forty?
(Oh, and just in case you were wondering – the original expression giddy little kipper (or whelk) was a cockney term of approval dating from around 1860/1880 to describe someone who looked really fine when dressed up in their best clothes for a night out in the local tavern or some special occasion like a wedding. But by the Second World War it had transformed into the expression playing the giddy kipper which had spread outside London, and meant to show off, mess around or make a show of yourself and was definitely not to be encouraged.)