Last weekend, I was headed to Umpqua Actors Community Theater to see “Little Women.” A few of my friends were involved in the production, so I sent them a quick “break a leg” note of encouragement on Facebook.
Then I stopped and thought about what a weird phrase that is. If I’m trying to encourage someone, why would I wish them harm?
There are phrases like this that I say and think I know what they mean. At least I know what they mean in today’s culture, but after a little research, I discovered that they started off meaning something quite different.
For example, in the instance of “break a leg,” it turns out that actors are traditionally superstitious and think that a “good luck” will have the opposite effect. So, by wishing someone bad luck (a broken leg), the hope is that something good will occur.
Speaking of legs, another strange idiom we use is “pulling my leg.” My son has a friend who was raised in a bilingual home, so there were times that messages were lost in translation on Erick, especially when he was young. In fact, one day I was giving him a ride home from pre-school and he was telling me some story about dinosaurs and pterodactyls, and I said, “Are you pulling my leg?”
Silence. He leaned forward from the back seat, craning his neck to see me in the front seat before declaring, “I’m nowhere near your leg!”
The kid had a point.
Turns out that phrase began in the 1800s in London. Criminals would trip someone (by pulling their leg) in order to disorient and confuse them, allowing them to be easily robbed. The idiom is used primarily in English-speaking countries, but in Spanish speaking countries they say “Are you pulling my hair?”
Another phrase that has baffled me over the years is “raining cats and dogs.” Obviously, there has been no record of rainfall where cats and dogs fell from the sky, so what gives? There are many theories on this phrase, but one is the most accepted explanation. In 16th Century Europe, many houses were built with thatched roofs. Animals reportedly sought shelter under the thatched roof in inclement weather to protect themselves from the elements. During heavy rain falls, cats and dogs would literally fall from the rooftops.
There’s one phrase I’ve used to describe my own children when I say they’re “cut from the same cloth” as their father. Of course I realize it means that they are very similar, strikingly so, whether in appearance or manner. But the real meaning goes beyond that. Back in the day when women sewed clothes for their family, it was often more economical to buy a lot of the same fabric, so their clothes were actually “cut from the same cloth.”
When I hear that someone has a “chip on his shoulder” I understand that to mean that he has something to prove. The original meaning was quite literal: In the 19th century, when someone was looking for a fight, he would walk around with a chip of wood on his shoulder, daring others to knock it off. If you were interested in fighting, you would simply walk up and knock the chip off the person’s shoulder and the fight would begin.
Suffice it to say, language is interesting … almost as interesting as the people who speak it. Whether we’re “pouring salt in the wound,” “tying the knot” or “buying the farm” I never tire of the way we use words to paint pictures of life.
Eileen Burmeister is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow her on Twitter at EBurmeister.