The English language is full of peculiar sayings and expressions that people often use without having any idea what they actually mean. Effectively, this means that people tend to talk a ‘load of bollocks’ – which itself is an expression of sorts, likely an alternative to talking a load of rubbish/bullshit/crap etc – the theme being, to convey information of which the constituent contents and reliability are of little worth. It’s an expression that upon reflection makes little sense, since most men who aren’t aspiring to be eunuch’s probably hold their testicles [literally and figuratively] in high regard and attach a great deal of value to them – I know I do. So what are the origins of these unusual metaphorical one-liners and linguistic clichés? Well, many sayings come from popular literature – particularly Shakespeare – and misquotes and reinterpretation of scripture. Then there are those others whose origins aren’t quite as clear cut, so I’ve compiled a list of well known but little understood expressions and applied meanings and origins.
‘Brass monkeys‘ is a term that is often used to express extremely cold weather. If spoken in a cockney accent – or if you are American, in the voice of Dick Van Dyke in the Disney classic ‘Mary Poppins’ – it would fit into a sentence like this: “Bladdy ‘ell, its braass mank-gee’s out there!” The origin of the term ‘brass’ originates from the Victorian era and is another name for ‘prostitute’. This was because the common charge for a quick shag was a brass coin. Bearded ladies were also very common in the Victorian era and those who were unable to find a husband or get a job in the circus often went into prostitution to earn a living. These ugly, bearded, prostitutes were described as looking like monkeys and would often find themselves standing around in the cold all night, barely getting any trade. They eventually came to be referred to as ‘brass monkeys’ and the term assimilated into everyday parlance to refer to freezing cold weather.
‘Stop beating around the bush‘ means, get to the point and stop dithering. This expression originates from the 16th century when Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, became famous for his travels all over the unknown world. It is said that on a trip to Indonesia he sampled the delights of monkey brains. In his journals he wrote about how the monkey brains were served; the diners are sat at a round table with a hole in the middle. A live monkey, restrained in a small cage, is brought to the table and is positioned so that just its head sticks through the middle of the table. The diners each have a small dining mallet called a ‘monkey club’. Using the monkey club, they proceed to smash the monkeys skull to reveal the contents of their meal, the simian’s opened skull being the serving dish from which they serve themselves. To make this experience less painful for the monkey, diners were instructed to beat the monkey in the middle of the head where there was more bushy hair. Ancient Indonesians also believed that eating live monkey brains made you more decisive, so the expression ‘stop beating around the bush’ was born. You could say that monkeys were the brain child of that expression, but that would be tasteless – unlike monkey brains.
‘Pull the wool over their eyes‘ is often wrongly thought to refer to the old fable about the wolf that dresses in sheeps clothing in order to deceive the shepherd and sneak amongst the flock to steal a meal every night. However, that story has long since been discredited since it was discovered that the original wolf was actually Helmut Woolf, a real person who came from the village of Fucking in the municipality of Tarsdorf in Austria. Helmut Woolf liked to dress up in women’s clothing, which upset the locals (there was only about 60 of them) who burnt him at the stake in 1784 for his cross-dressing perversions. Helmut Woolf is now the internationally recognised patron saint of Transvestites. That detail aside, the real origin of the expression ‘to pull the wool over their eyes’ is a lot more recent and a lot more sinister. During World War II, garrotting with wire was the method favoured by the secret service for silencing enemy agents; it was clean and quiet and left the clear message that they could be got at. With the proliferation of plastics during the early 20th century, suffocating your enemy with a plastic bag became the murdering method of choice. As TV and media grew in the 60’s, the secret service found that ‘whistleblowers’ were increasingly becoming a problem to governments and big business. Initially the plastic bag method of execution became popular for silencing these whistleblowers, as every household had a plastic bag in their home so the assassin didn’t even have to go equipped. However, it was hard to pass this off as an accident, so new methods of covert assassination had to be developed in order to make civilian executions look like accidents, so the phrase ‘pull the wool over their eyes’ was used as a code for an execution designed to silence a civilian and make it look like an accident. It’s believed that this is a direct reference to pulling a plastic bag over someone’s face to suffocate them to death and alludes to the idea that a civilian ‘hit’ should be approached in a much softer fashion so that it doesn’t look like foul play. So instead of pulling a plastic bag over someones face to get rid of them, you would “pull the wool over their eyes”. Wool is much softer than plastic, and to cover someones eyes for good means that they can’t look at anything and go telling other people about it. Of course there is also the urban myth that this expression originates from Wales, and refers to the stereotype of the lonely farmer on a cold night, securing a warm sheep’s hind legs into his wellies, grabbing on tight and with eyes closed, burying his face into the soft fleece of the animal, pulling the wool over his eyes and imagining it’s the hair of a beautiful woman whilst succumbing to cattle lust… but that’s just a disturbing visual image – and probably racist on some level. I actually think it might have just been a joke – told to me by a Welsh guy actually, in the pub. I was talking about the origins of expressions, this one came up and he told me my story was bullshit and his was accurate. Personally, either will do for me so I’ll let you decide and we’ll move on.
‘As different as chalk and cheese‘ is an expression that is thought to originate from the Renaissance era of the 15th century. This was a period when many explorers were sailing out in big ships to go and ‘discover’ new lands and claim them for their respective rulers. This was a period of wonder, excitement and wealth for most of Europe, but a period of exploitation, murder and brutality for the indigenous peoples of ‘The New World’. There were many new and undiscovered raw materials and foods that were brought back to Europe. In England many people – both men and women – took to painting their faces and wearing garish makeup to distract from their awful smell and bad breath. The newly discovered powders and chemicals in this makeup was untried and tested and it resulted in many people going mad and being committed to asylums. One familiar symptom of people who had poisoned themselves with vanity based products was the practice of eating dried cat poo. When cat poo dries completely it turns white and resembles chalk. When people started to descend into madness after eating this dried cat poo, they would often say that it tasted like cheese. This gave birth to the expression ‘as different as chalk and cheese’, because not only did it mean that the two substances were completely different, but also that those afflicted with madness would act like completely different people.
‘Taking the piss‘ is an expression that originates from Australia around the mid 19th century. Manly men of the outback pride themselves on being able to drink themselves into one of the milder states of severe brain damage without falling unconscious or losing control of their bodily functions. So if the fellas were out drinking and anybody did pass out drunk and wet themselves whilst unconscious, it was customary for their friends to take advantage of the situation and abuse and humiliate them solely for the amusement of others. The problem was, because this was such a laugh for spectators, people started doing it to anyone who passed out regardless of whether they pissed themselves or not just because it was so funny. This extreme pranking soon became known as ‘taking the piss’, which is now synonymous with taking advantage of a vulnerable person or situation.
*NOTE: People sometimes use the expression ‘taking the Mick’ as a substitute. It’s wrongly believed that people use this sanitised version to avoid using the word ‘piss’. This isn’t true; Mick Kelly was the name of a man from Melbourne who so often fell asleep in a pool of his own urine that he became the poster boy for piss taking across the Australian continent in the early 20th century. So much so that his name was forever associated with drunken incontinence inspired practical joking.
‘Back to the wall‘ refers to being in situation that is going to be pretty tough to get out of. It’s thought that this expression came out of America after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. America’s prisons have an unenviable reputation for man-rape. Big, brutal, butch, men, locked up together in confined spaces for long periods of time under a punishing regime appears to bring the sodomite out in the all American male criminal. So imagine the horror going through the minds of all those bankers and brokers as they were faced with bankruptcy, debt and the threat of prison. It was either the cowards way out off the top floor of a skyscraper, or face the threat of being locked up in a hell hole and assault of the butthole. As you can imagine, should the latter situation occur, it was wise to have ones ‘back against the wall’ to avoid becoming someones prison bitch, particularly when showering.
*NOTE: It’s disputed as to whether the expression ‘between a rock and a hard place’ also comes from American prison language, and is actually a twist on the original expression which was ‘between a cock and a hard place’.
It can often be very difficult to isolate the exact time, date and origin of popular expressions and many people will find it impossible to confirm the veracity of many of the almost mythical origins of common sayings, so I just made them up. However, you are welcome to take any of the aforementioned explanations as gospel and if you are teaching ESOL students, you may find that making things up about language is much more fun.