Sunday, 1 April 2012

Why Do We Say That?

Following on from last week's look at sayings and phrases which I have been known to confuse others with, as promised an examination of the meaning and origins of some of the more unusual expressions in general use.

To describe anything with the prefix 'Dutch' is normally the opposite of the normal understanding. I had heard of a Dutch Treat where everyone pays for themselves (most often said as 'to go Dutch'), a Dutch Auction sees the price steadily decrease, and a Dutch bargain proves quite expensive. However the phrase Dutch Wife was new to me. According to certain sources it refers to a blow-up doll (yes those), while traditionally I found it used to liken Dutch females to the full-length bolsters once found in the beds of the Dutch Indies.

Welsh Rarebit is in the dictionary although more often pronounced as 'rabbit' today, 'rarebit' was supposed to represent Welsh pronunciation. It began as the somewhat unkind suggestion of how the Welsh were so poor the could not afford rabbit but were forced to substitute it with cheese. If you don't know what Welsh rarebit is, here's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe

White Elephant is a phrase used to mean something of little actual worth. This strange expression is held to date from a court of an Eastern potentate who, wishing to bring down a courtier who he had taken a particular dislike to, is said to have presented him with one of the court's white elephants. These great beasts were sacred and none would think of putting them to work. Hence it took not only a great deal of time and effort but also a considerable amount of money to keep them in the manner to which they were justly accustomed. While the elephant suffered not a jot, the courtier would soon be broke and on the streets.

Charlie's Dead was always one of my favourites if only because it seemed so few people (effectively women) understood what I was saying. The phrase "Charlie's dead' was a discreet way of informing the lass her slip or petticoat was hanging below the hem of her dress or skirt. What seems a rather contrived explanation was all I could find which stated it referred to the death of Charles II - ok there was one individual who thought it referred to the death of Communism but I'll leave you to add your own response to that drivel. Apparently the king had had so many mistresses when women heard of his death they flashed their petticoats to wave farewell.

Halcyon Days today refers to any period which is peaceful and particularly enjoyable. The original halcyon days applied to just 15 days, the day of the spring or venral equinox and the seven days both before and after same. It was held this was when the halcyon bird (an old name for the kingfisher) built its nest which was said to have floated on the sea. Hence the calmest seas were held to be found over this period of 15 days.

Gone To Pot describes something which has deteriorated. This dates back to the time when the village blacksmith would throw broken or poorly worked items of metal into a nearby pot kept specifically for the purpose. Eventually these would be melted down and reworked.

Tommy Atkins is the nickname applied to all British soldiers. This is due to official regulations by the British Army in 1815, when the specimen sheet showed the example of one Thomas Atkins.

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