The folklore behind common phrases

On the television news yesterday, one man gave his opinion that racism was ‘beyond the pale.’ It was a throwaway remark that he probably said without any consideration for the original meaning of the phrase. It did set me thinking though, which is an unusual procedure in itself.

The phrase ‘beyond the pale’ relates to the old colonial days when England was attempting to conquer Ireland, and making heavy weather of it [and that is also another phrase with a historical meaning.] The English invaders had conquered Dublin and its immediate hinterland but found the territory outside that area much more difficult to conquer. Indeed they had all but given up on the wild lands so they erected a stout fence, a paling, between the ‘civilised’ English controlled area and the lands of the ‘Wild Irish.’ Anything inside this paling was ‘within the pale’ English and therefore deemed  safe, while anything ‘beyond the pale’ was Irish and therefore dangerous and uncivilised. It is an example of an early racist expression that has come down to us in its original form but not quite its original meaning.

There are a great many expressions that we use today that have changed their meaning. For example the phrase ‘not enough room to swing a cat,’ which apparently has nothing to do with four-legged furry felines but everything to do with the more vicious cat-o-nine-tails that was used in prisons and ships as a punishment tool.

Equally nautical is the expression ‘son of a gun.’ At one time this was an insult, implying that the man to whom it was directed did not know who his father was. In the Royal Navy of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women as well as men lived on board. They could be wives of serving seamen, or widows of those who had died. Inevitably some would fall pregnant and give birth on board. That would be an interesting experience, with only canvas screens erected for privacy and a cannon for support. The resulting child would be written into the ship’s books under the name of the mother and, where known, the father. If the father was not known, the child became the ‘son of a gun.’ In land language: illegitimate.

Other nautical terms have seeped into everyday language. There is ‘cut and run’ for instance. This saying originated in the days before chains and steel hawsers when the anchor cable of ships were made of hemp. In 1588 the Spanish Armada lay at anchor off Calais and the English sent in fireships. Naturally the Spanish panicked, ordered the cables cut and ran before the wind. About a hundred and fifty anchors were sunk in the seas off Calais. The phrase has passed to land use, where to ‘cut and run’ usually means to leave some enterprise and disappear at speed, often without honour.

Other everyday words and phrases also prove just how great an influence the sea has had on our lives and language. How about ‘the coast is clear,’ which means there are no customs men watching so a smuggler could land his – or her – cargo. Or that common little word so beloved of wives and mothers: ‘tidy.’ That word originates in the Old English for the tide – as orderly and regular as the tide itself. Almost the opposite is ‘junk’ which has come to mean rubbish but which was originally condemned rope or cord. Apparently the word originates from the Latin ‘juncus’ which was a type of rush used in manufacturing cord. A ‘square meal’ now means a meal of satisfying proportions but originally implied a meal served on the square plates of shipboard life.

Finally for this blog is a phrase that may be heard this coming winter. If the temperature dips there will invariably be some would-be humourist who says that it is ‘cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey.’ Now that phrase could conjure up a mental image of a very unhappy looking wee monkey clutching dolefully at a very personal part of his anatomy. The truth however is more prosaic and infinitely less painful.

In the naval wars of the eighteenth century, Great Britain sent its ships north to protect the whaling fleets in the Arctic and the convoys that sailed to the Baltic for timber, flax and tar. Even in these northern latitudes the Navy had to be prepared for action, for French, American, Dutch or Danish privateers could capture a merchant ship between the fading of the Pole Star and the ice-blink of dawn. Royal Navy warships had their iron cannonballs in the ammunition racks, or ‘monkeys’ as they were known. If the cold contracted the iron balls, it had the same effect on the iron monkeys so no harm was done. However on the flagships where the Commodore or Admiral ruled supreme, the monkeys could be of brass, which does not contract with the cold. So on the coldest of days, the iron balls could contract sufficiently to slip through the retaining bars of their monkeys. On these days it was truly cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

Of course there are some who think that using such a crude expression was going beyond the pale of decency, but that is to complete the circle of discussion.

About malcolmarchibald

Happily married for 34 years to Cathy, I have three grown children and live in the depths of Moray in northern Scotland. I was educated in Edinburgh and Dundee and work as a lecturer in Inverness, while writing historical books, both fiction and fact.
This entry was posted in arctic, brass monkeys, English language, folklore, history, ireland, maritime, meaning, meanings, phrases, son of a gun, words and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The folklore behind common phrases

  1. That was really interesting. Some of the sayings I’ve never heard. But it was interesting to learn that son of a gun means more like a bastard than the “wow” I’ve always believed it to mean (though I had no idea why ).

  2. Thank you for the comment, Krista!

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