Newsletter Subscribe Give. Poetry Foundation. Back to Previous. Arthur Rimbaud. He was the enfant terrible of French poetry in the second half of the nineteenth century and a major figure in symbolism. In Rimbaud ran away from home three times. In August he went to Paris but was arrested at the train station for traveling without a ticket and was briefly imprisoned. He spent several months wandering in France and Belgium before his mother had him brought home by the police. In February he ran away again to join the insurgents in the Paris Commune; he returned home three weeks later, just before the Commune was brutally suppressed by the army.
During this time he was developing his own poetic style and elaborating his theory of voyance , a visionary program in which the poetic process becomes the vehicle for exploration of other realities. This theory is expressed in his much-quoted letters of 13 May to his friend and tutor, Georges Izambard, and of 15 May to Paul Demeny. They are, superficially, his most orthodox works in technical terms.
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In summer,. Poems by Arthur Rimbaud. Related Content. Podcasts Continental Drift Stitched to a Wish. More About this Poet. Region: France. Poems by This Poet Related Bibliography. Appeared in Poetry Magazine. The Drunken Boat. Morning of Drunkenness. The Seekers of Lice. To a Reason. To One Reason. Thanks J R for raising the question. In fact the expression 'baer-saerk' with 'ae' pronounced as 'a' in the word 'anyhow' , means bear-shirt, which more likely stemmed from the belief that these fierce warriors could transform into animals, especially bears and wolves, or at least carry the spirit of the animal during extreme battle situations.
Thanks Cornelia for this more precise derivation. This derivation is also supported by the Old Icelandic word 'Beserkr', meaning 'bear-shirt'. I am additionally informed thanks F Tims that: " By their account, the 'bar-sark' was worn only by members of the Norse chieftan's personal bodyguard, they being the most ferocious, and thus the most feared, of the Vikings plundering eastern Scotland and the hapless Dane-mark. So, according to the book, the term does not apply to all invading Vikings, just the more obnoxious. In the book, also, the Norse word 'bar' or 'baer', as the case may be means 'wolf', from the hide of which the shirt was made, so it would be a 'wolf-shirt' Champions - Professed fighting men were often kept by kings and earls about their court as useful in feud and fray.
Harald Fairhair's champions are admirably described in the contemporary Raven Song by Hornclofe - "Wolf-coats they call them that in battle bellow into bloody shields. They wear wolves' hides when they come into the fight, and clash their weapons together These baer-sarks, or wolf coats of Harald give rise to an Old Norse term, 'baer sark', to describe the frenzy of fight and fury which such champions indulged in, barking and howling, and biting their shield-rims Voltaire wrote in ' If this is best of possible worlds If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?..
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Another famous writer of his time, though less renowned today American James Branch Cable, , might well have contributed to the popular use of the term when he used it in his novel 'The Silver Stallion' in , when he created a frequently repeated ironically amusing expression in its own right: ' The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true..
The fact that the quotes feature in the definitive quotations work, Bartletts Familiar Quotations first published and still going bears out the significance of the references.
Related no doubt to this, the s expression 'biblical neckline' was a euphemistic sexual slang term for a low neckline a pun on the 'lo and behold' expression found in the bible. Thanks Ben for suggesting the specific biblical quote. It is both a metaphor based on the size of the bible as a book, and more commonly a description by association to many of the particularly disastrous epic events described in the bible, for example: famines, droughts, plagues of locusts, wars, mass exodus, destruction of cities and races, chariots of fire, burning bushes, feeding of thousands, parting of seas, etc.
The slang 'big cheese' is a fine example of language from a far-away or entirely foreign culture finding its way into modern life and communications, in which the users have very awareness or appreciation of its different cultural origins. This would suggest that some distortion or confusion led to the expression's development.
It's easy to imagine that people confused the earlier meaning with that of the female garment and then given the feminine nature of the garment, attached the derogatory weak 'girly' or 'sissy' meaning. I received this helpful information thanks N Swan, April about the expression: " Hence perhaps the northern associations and s feel. A catchphrase can get into the public vernacular very rapidly - in a very similar vein, I've heard people referring to their friends as a 'Nancy Boy Potter', a name taken directly from the schoolmaster sketch in Rowan Atkinson's mids one-man show Kipling reinforced the expression when he wrote in that the secret of power ' It's the liftable stick.
The term is found also in pottery and ceramic glazing for the same reason. Takes the biscuit seems according to Patridge to be the oldest of the variations of these expressions, which essentially link achievement metaphorically to being awarded a baked confectionery prize. Heaven knows why though, and not even Partridge can suggest any logic for that one. Incidentally, the expression 'takes the biscuit' also appears thanks C Freudenthal more than once in the dialogue of a disreputable character in one of James Joyce's Dubliners stories, published in I am informed additionally thanks J Finnie, Verias Vincit History Group, Oct of a different interpretation, paraphrased thus: Rather than bullets, historic accounts tell of men bitting down on leather straps when undergoing primative medical practice.
Biting on a round metal brass bullet would have been both a potential choking hazard, and extremely hard to do. However in the days of paper cartridges, a soldier in a firing line would have 'bitten off' the bullet, to allow him to pour the gunpowder down the barrel, before spitting the ball bullet down after the powder, then ramming the paper in as wadding.
This would have left a salty nasty-tasting traces of gun powder in the soldier's mouth. So, 'bite the bullet' in this respect developed as a metaphor referring to doing something both unpleasent and dangerous. If you can offer any further authoritative information about the origins of this phrase please let me know. With hindsight, the traditional surgical metaphor does seem a little shaky. When the rope had been extended to the bitter end there was no more left. Captain Stuart Nicholls MNI contacted me to clarify further: "Bitter end is in fact where the last link of the anchor chain is secured to the vessel's chain locker, traditionally with a weak rope link.
Nowadays it is attached through the bulkhead to a sturdy pin. The term 'bitter end' is as it seems to pay out the anchor until the bitter end. A man was placed forward and swung a lead weight with a length of rope. A difficult and tiring task, so seamen would often be seen from aft 'swinging the lead' instead of actually letting go. The origin also gave us the word 'bride'. Strictly for the birds. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable certainly makes no mention of it which suggests it is no earlier than 20th century. The term alludes the small brains of birds, and expressions such as 'bird-brain', as a metaphor for people of limited intelligence.
The balls were counted and if there were more blacks than reds or whites then the membership application was denied - the prospective new member was 'blackballed'. In addition I am informed by one who seems to know To vote for admitting the new person, the voting member transfers a white cube to another section of the box. To vote against, a black ball is inserted. One black ball is enough to exclude the potential member.
See also 'pipped at the post' the black ball was called a pip - after the pip of a fruit, in turn from earlier similar words which meant the fruit itself, eg pippin, and the Greek, pepe for melon - so pipped became another way or saying blackballed or defeated. These, from their constant attendance about the time of the guard mounting, were nick-named the blackguards. These various explanations, origins and influences of the 'black Irish' expression, from a range of sources including Cassells, Hobson-Jobson, Oxford, Chambers, historical writings on Irish history, specialist online discussion groups, are as follows:.
In summary, despite there being no evidence in print, there seems to me to be sufficient historical evidence as to the validity of the Armada theory as being the main derivation and that other usages are related to this primary root. I say this because: there is truth in the history; it is likely that many Spanish came ashore and settled after the Armada debacle, and people of swarthy appearance were certainly called black.
Also the Armada theory seems to predate the other possible derivations. From this point the stories and legends about the Armada and the 'black Irish' descendents would have provided ample material for the expression to become established and grow. Following this, the many other usages, whether misunderstandings of the true origin and meaning ie.
A simple example sent to me thanks S Price is the derogatory and dubious notion that the term refers to Irish peasants who burnt peat for fuel, which, according to the story, produces a fine soot causing people to take on a black appearance. The 'black Irish' expression will no doubt continue to be open to widely varying interpretations and folklore.
I am also informed thanks C Parker of perhaps another explanation for the 'Mediterranean' appearance darker skin and hair colouring notably of some Irish people and giving rise to the Black Irish term, namely the spread of refugee Spanish Moors across Europe, including into Ireland, in the 8th, 9th and 17th centuries. If anyone knows of any specific references which might support this notion and to link it with the Black Irish expression please tell me. Nor sadly do official dictionaries give credence to the highly appealing suggestion that the black market expression derives from the illicit trade in stolen graphite in England and across the English channel to France and Flanders, during the reign of Elizabeth I It is true that uniquely pure and plentiful graphite deposits were mined at Borrowdale, Cumbria, England.
And there was seemingly a notable illegal trade in the substance. In the 16th century graphite was used for moulds in making cannon balls, and was also in strong demand for the first pencils. The Borrowdale mine was apparently the only large source of pure graphite in Europe, perhaps globally, and because of its military significance and value, it was taken over by the Crown in Elizabeth I's reign.
The mine and its graphite became such a focus of theft and smuggling that, according to local history thanks D Hood , this gave rise to the expression 'black market'. Frustratingly however, official reference books state that the black market term was first recorded very much later, around This is a pity because the Borrowdale graphite explanation is fascinating, appealing, and based on factual history. However, while a few years, perhaps a few decades, of unrecorded use may predate any first recorded use of an expression, several hundred years' of no recorded reference at all makes it impossible to reliably validate such an origin.
We might conclude that given the research which goes into compiling official reference books and dictionaries, underpinned by the increasing opportunity for submitted evidence and corrections over decades, its is doubtful that the term black market originated from a very old story or particular event. If there were any such evidence it would likely have found its way into the reference books by now. The expression black market is probably simply the logical use of the word black to describe something illegal, probably popularised by newspapers or other commentators.
The word black is a natural choice and readily understood for describing anything negative, theatening or illicit, and has been used, in some cases for centuries, to describe all sorts of unapproved, sinister or illegal things - e. The first use and popularity of the black market term probably reflect the first time in Western history that consumer markets were tightly regulated and undermined on a very wide and common scale, in the often austere first half of the s, during and between the world wars of and more so in Further to the above entry I am informed thanks Dr A Summers, Mar of another fascinating suggestion of origin: " The market town of Crieff in Perthshire was the main cattle market up till , but at the start there was opposition from the Provost in Perth, so there was an illegal trade in cattle before it became the official Drover's Tryst or cattle market.
The cattle were known as The Black hence the origin of the regiment The Black Watch, a militia started to protect the drovers from rustlers so the illegal market was known as the 'black market' Legend has it that whoever kisses the blarney stone will enjoy the same ability as MacCarthy. When a person is said to 'have kissed the Blarney stone', it is a reference to their having the gift of persuasion. Another interpretation thanks R Styx , and conceivably a belief once held by some, is that sneezing expelled evil spirits from a person's body. A contributory factor was the association of sneezing with the Black Death Bubonic Plague which ravaged England and particularly London in the 14th and 17th centuries.
In more recent times the expression has been related ack D Slater to the myth that sneezing causes the heart to stop beating, further reinforcing the Bless You custom as a protective superstition. Perhaps also influenced by African and African-American 'outjie', leading to okey without the dokey , meaning little man. Various references have been cited in Arabic and Biblical writings to suggest that it was originally based on Middle- and Far-Eastern customs, in which blood rituals symbolised bonds that were stronger than family ones. However the expression has certainly been in use for hundreds of years with its modern interpretation - ie.
In this sense, the metaphor is such an obvious one that it is likely to have evolved separately from the supposed 'blood brothers' meaning, with slightly different variations from different societies, over the many hundreds of years that the expression has been in use. The modern expression bloody-minded still carries this sense, which connects with the qualities of the blood temperament within the four humours concept.
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The mild oath ruddy is a very closely linked alternative to bloody, again alluding to the red-faced characteristics within the four humours. Oxford Word Histories confirms bloody became virtually unprintable around the mids, prior to which it was not an offensive term even when used in a non-literal sense i. In terms of a major source or influence on the expression's development, Oxford agrees largely with Brewer's dictionary of phrase and fable, which explains that the use of the word 'bloody' in the expletive sense " Rowdy aristocrats were called 'Bloods' after the term for a thoroughbred horse, a 'blood-horse' as in today's 'bloodstock' term, meaning thoroughbred horses.
Clearly, the blood-horse metaphor captures both the aristocratic and unpredictable or wild elements of this meaning. The use of blood in this 'aristocratic' sense would have been reinforced by other similar metaphors: 'blood' was and still is a term used also to refer to family descent, and appears in many other lineage-related expressions, such as 'blood is thicker than water' people are more loyal to their family members than to other people and 'blue blood' royalty or aristocratic people - an expression coming into England from France where 'sang blue' means of high aristocratic descent, the notion originating in Spain when it was believed that pre-Moorish old Spanish families had blue blood whereas the common people's blood was black.
The blue blood imagery would have been strengthened throughout Western society by the idea of aristocratic people having paler skin, which therefore made their veins and blood appear more blue than normal people's. It is commonly suggested thanks B Bunker, J Davis that 'bloody' is a corruption of a suggested oath, 'By our Lady', which could have contributed to the offensive perception of the expression, although I believe would not have been its origin as an expletive per se.
Whatever, extending this point thanks A Sobot , the expression 'By our Lord' might similarly have been retrospectively linked, or distorted to add to the 'bloody' mix. The flag is a blue rectangle with a solid white rectangle in the middle; 'peter' is from the French, 'partir' meaning 'to leave'. Additionally, ack G Jackson , the blue and white 'blue peter' flag is a standard nautical signal flag which stands for the letter 'P'.
The letter 'P' is associated with the word 'peter' in many phonetic alphabets, including those of the English and American military, and it is possible that this phonetic language association was influenced by the French 'partir' root. Phonetic alphabet details. This table meaning of board is how we got the word boardroom too, and the popular early s piece of furniture called a sideboard. See also the expression 'sweep the board', which also refers to the table meaning of board. In this sense the expression also carried a hint of sarcastic envy or resentment, rather like it's who you know not what you know that gets results, or 'easy when you know how'.
Since then the meaning has become acknowledging, announcing or explaining a result or outcome that is achieved more easily than might be imagined. Nowadays the term 'bohemian' does not imply gypsy associations necessarily or at all, instead the term has become an extremely broad and flexible term for people, behaviour, lifestyle, places, atmosphere, attitudes, etc. Thus, a person could be described as bohemian; so could a coffee-shop, or a training course or festival.
Bohemian is a fascinating word - once a geographical region, and now a description of style which can be applied and interpreted in many different ways. The sense is in giving someone a small concession begrudgingly, as a token, or out of sympathy or pity. The giver an individual or a group is in a position of dominance or authority, and the recipient of the bone is seeking help, approval, agreement, or some other positive response.
It is a simple metaphor based on the idea of throwing a hungry dog a bone to chew on a small concession instead of some meat which the dog would prefer. The metaphor also alludes to the sense that a bone provides temporary satisfaction and distraction, and so is a tactical or stalling concession, and better than nothing. It is not widely used in the UK and it is not in any of my reference dictionaries, which suggests that in the English language it is quite recent - probably from the end of the 20th century.
According to various online discussions about this expression it is apparently featured in a film, as the line, "Throw me a bone down here Apparently ack Matthew Stone the film was first Austin Powers movie 'Austin Powers:International Man of Mystery' , from a scene in which Dr Evil is trying to think of schemes, but because he has been frozen for years, his ideas have either already happened or are no longer relevant and so attract little enthusiasm, which fits the expression's meaning very well.
I am further informed ack P Nix " It most certainly appeared prior to the Austin Powers movies since the usage of it in the movie was intended to be a humorous use of the already commonly used expression. It is also commonly used in the United States as 'Toss me a bone.
In Argentina we use that expression very often. It is not pityful pitying at all It may have a funny meaning too I'm not sure of the origin of this phrase, but it was used in in French in 'The Law' by Frederic Bastiat. Here it is translated - 'The excluded classes will furiously demand their right to vote - and will overthrow society rather than not to obtain it. Even beggars and vagabonds will then prove to you that they also have an incontestable title to vote.
They will say to you: "We cannot buy wine, tobacco, or salt without paying the tax. And a part of the tax that we pay is given by law - in privileges and subsidies - to men who are richer than we are. Others use the law to raise the prices of bread, meat, iron, or cloth. Thus, since everyone else uses the law for his own profit, we also would like to use the law for our own profit. We demand from the law the right to relief, which is the poor man's plunder. To obtain this right, we also should be voters and legislators in order that we may organize Beggary on a grand scale for our own class, as you have organized Protection on a grand scale for your class.
Now don't tell us beggars that you will act for us, and then toss us, as Mr. We have other claims. And anyway, we wish to bargain for ourselves as other classes have bargained for themselves! The extract does not prove that the expression was in wide use in France in the mids, but it does show a similar and perhaps guiding example for interpreting the modern usage. The gannet-like seabird, the booby, is taken from Spanish word for the bird, bobo, which came into English around There seems no evidence for the booby bird originating the meaning of a foolish person, stupid though the booby bird is considered to be.
The sense of booby meaning fool extended later to terms like booby-trap and booby-hatch lunatic asylum , and also to the verb form of boob, meaning to make a mistake or blunder i. I am informed thanks Mr Morrison that the wilderness expert Ray Mears suggested booby-trap derives from the old maritime practice of catching booby seabirds when they flew onto ships' decks. The US later early 20th C adapted the word boob to mean a fool. The ultimate origins can be seen in the early development of European and Asian languages, many of which had similar words meaning babble or stammer, based on the repetitive 'ba' sound naturally heard or used to represent the audible effect or impression of a stammerer or a fool.
It is probable that this basic 'baba' sound-word association also produced the words babe and baby, and similar variations in other languages. The mainly UK-English reference to female breasts boob, boobs, boob-tube, etc is much more recent s - boob-tube was s although these derive from the similar terms bubby and bubbies. Separately, thanks B Puckett, since the s, 'boob-tube' has been US slang for a television, referring to idiocy on-screen, and the TV cathode-ray 'tube' technology, now effectively replaced by LCD flatscreens.
Incidentally a UK 'boob-tube' garment is in the US called a 'tube-top'.
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Returning to boobs meaning breasts, Partridge amusingly notes that bubby is 'rare in the singular Bubby and bubbies meaning breasts appeared in the late s, probably derived from the word bub, both noun and verb for drink, in turn probably from Latin bibire, perhaps reinforced by allusion to the word bubble, and the aforementioned 'baba' sound associated with babies. My thanks to John L for raising the question of the booby, initially seeking clarification of its meaning in the Gilbert and Sullivan line from Trial by Jury, when the judge sings "I'd a frock-tailed coat of a beautiful blue, and brief that I bought for a booby Men who 'took the King's shilling' were deemed to have contracted to serve in the armed forces, and this practice of offering the shilling inducement led to the use of the technique in rather less honest ways, notably by the navy press-gangs who would prey on drunks and unsuspecting drinkers close to port.
Unscrupulous press-gangers would drop a shilling into a drinker's pint of ale, which was then in a pewter or similar non-transparent vessel , and if the coin was undetected until the ale was consumed the press-gangers would claim that the payment had been accepted, whereupon the poor victim would be dragged away to spend years at sea. Pubs and drinkers became aware of this practice and the custom of drinking from glass-bottom tankards began.
The 'bottoms up' expression then naturally referred to checking for the King's shilling at the bottom of the tankard. Ack J Burbedge. This expression is a wonderful example of how certain expressions origins inevitably evolve, without needing necessarily any particular origin. There might be one of course, but it's very well buried if there is, and personally I think the roots of the saying are entirely logical, despite there being no officially known source anywhere. Partridge for instance can offer only that brass monkey in this sense was first recorded in the s with possible Australian origins.
Cassells says late s and possible US origins. The OED is no more helpful either in suggesting the ultimate source. Allen's English Phrases is more revealing in citing an source unfortunately not named : "He was told to be silent, in a tone of voice which set me shaking like a monkey in frosty weather In fact the expression most likely evolved from another early version 'Cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey', which apparently is first recorded in print in Charles A Abbey's book Before the Mast in the Clippers, around , which featured the author's diaries from his time aboard American clippers fast merchant sailing ships from The switch from tail to balls at some stage probably around the turn of the s proved irresistible to people, for completely understandable reasons: it's much funnier, much more illustrative of bitter cold, and the alliteration repeating of the B sound is poetically much more pleasing.
The notion of a brass monkey would have appealed on many levels: monkeys have long been associated with powerful imagery three wise monkeys - see no evil, etc and the word is incorporated within various popular terminology monkey wrench, monkey puzzle, monkey suit, etc. And aside from the allusion to brass monkey ornaments, brass would have been the metal of choice because it was traditionally associated with strength and resilience more so than copper or tin for instance ; also brass is also very much more phonetically enjoyable than iron, steel or bronze. It simply sounds good when spoken.
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Zinc and platinum are complete non-starters obviously. So it had to be brass. The choice of monkey - as opposed to any other creature - is also somehow inevitable given a bit of logical thought. Here goes Certain iconic animals with good tails can be discounted immediately for reasons of lacking euphonic quality meaning a pleasing sound when spoken ; for example, brass horse, brass mouse, brass rat, brass scorpion, brass crocodile and brass ass just don't roll off the tongue well enough.
No good either would have been any creatures not possessing a suitably impressive and symbolic tail, which interestingly would effectively have ruled out virtually all the major animal images like cow, elephant, pig, bear, dog, rabbit, lion, tiger, and most of the B-list like rhino, giraffe, deer, not to mention C-listers like hamster, badger, tortoise, all birds, all fish and all insects. We can also forget the well-endowed lemurs, platypii, and chameleons for reasons of obscurity: a metaphor must be reasonably universal to become popular.
Which pretty well leaves just a cat and a monkey, and who on earth has ever seen a brass cat? It's just not a notion that conveys anything at all. So it kind of just had to be a monkey because nothing else would have worked. That's my theory, and I'm sticking to it unless anyone has a better idea. This is the way that a lot of expressions become established and hugely popular - they just are right in terms of sound and imagery, and often it's that simple. Incidentally a popular but entirely mythical theory for the 'freeze the balls off a brass monkey' version suggests a wonderfully convoluted derivation from the Napoleonic Wars and the British Navy's Continental Blockade of incoming French supplies.
The story goes that where the British warships found themselves in northerly frozen waters the cannonballs contracted shrank in size due to cold more than their brass receptacle supposedly called the 'monkey' and fell onto the deck. Or so legend has it. Unfortunately there was never a brass receptacle for cannonballs called a monkey. Ships did actually have a 'monkey rail' just above the quarter rail, wherever that was but this was not related to cannonballs at all, and while there was at one time a cannon called a monkey, according to Longridge's The Anatomy of Nelson's Ships, cannonballs were actually stored on the gun deck on wooden boards with holes cut in them, called short garlands, not monkeys.
What we see here is an example of a mythical origin actually supporting the popularity of the expression it claims to have spawned, because it becomes part of folklore and urban story-telling, so in a way it helps promote the expression, but it certainly isn't the root of it. To understand the root, very commonly we need simply to understand how language works, and then it all makes sense.
I am grateful for A Zambonini's help in prompting and compiling this entry. Neck was a northern English 19th slang century expression some sources suggest with origins in Australia meaning audacity or boldness - logically referring to a whole range of courage and risk metaphors involving the word neck, and particularly with allusions to hanging, decapitation, wringing of a chicken's neck - 'getting it in the neck', 'sticking your neck out', and generally the idea of exposing or extending one's neck in a figurative display of intentional or foolhardy personal risk.
As regards brass, Brewer lists 'brass' as meaning impudence. The modern OED meanings include effrontery shameless insolence. Brassy means pretentious or impudent. Brass is also an old 19thC word for a prostitute. Some of these meanings relate to brass being a cheap imitation of gold. Some of the meanings also relate to brass being a very hard and resilient material. Phonetically there is also a similarity with brash, which has similar meanings - rude, vulgarly self-assertive probably derived from rash, which again has similar meanings, although with less suggestion of intent, more recklessness.
At some stage during the 20th century brass and neck were combined to form brass neck and brass necked. Many sources identify the hyphenated brass-neck as a distinctly military expression same impudence and boldness meanings , again 20th century, and from the same root words and meanings, although brass as a slang word in the military has other old meanings and associations, eg, top brass and brass hat, both referring to officers because of their uniform adornments , which would have increased the appeal and usage of the brass-neck expression in military circles.
Most dramatically, the broken leg suffered by assassin John Wilkes Booth. Booth, an actor, assassinated President Lincoln's on 14 April , at Ford's Theatre in Washington DC and broke his leg while making his escape, reportedly while jumping from Lincoln's box onto the stage. Later research apparently suggests the broken leg was suffered later in his escape, but the story became firmly embedded in public and thesbian memory, and its clear connections with the expression are almost irresistible, especially given that Booth was considered to have been daringly lucky in initially escaping from the theatre.
His luck ran out though as he was shot and killed resisting capture twelve days later. Etymologist Michael Sheehan is among those who suggests the possible Booth source, although he cites and prefers Eric Partridge's suggestion that the saying derives from " The phrase in the German theatre was Hals und Beinbruch, neck and leg break Interestingly according to Cassells, break a leg also means 'to be arrested' in US slang first recorded from , and 'to hurry' from , which again seems to fit with the JW Booth story.
Bear in mind that actual usage can predate first recorded use by many years. Cassells reminds us that theatrical superstition discourages the use of the phrase 'good luck', which is why the coded alternative was so readily adopted in the theatre. Cassells inserts a hyphen and expands the meaning of the German phrase, 'Hals-und Beinbruch', to 'may you break your neck and leg', which amusingly to me and utterly irrelevantly, seems altogether more sinister. Such are the delights of translation. Incidentally my version of Partridge's dictionary also suggests break a leg, extending to 'break a leg above the knee', has been an English expression since first recorded meaning " Broken-legged also referred to one who had been seduced.
Such are the delights of early English vulgar slang.. As a footnote pun intended to the seemingly natural metaphor and relationship between luck and leg-breaking is the wonderful quote penned by George Santayana Spanish-Amercian literary philosopher, in his work Character and Opinion in the United States : "All his life [the American] jumps into the train after it has started and jumps out before it has stopped; and he never once gets left behind, or breaks a leg. On a different track, I am informed, which I can neither confirm nor deny thanks Steve Fletcher, Nov : " In older theatres the device used to raise the curtain was a winch with long arms called 'legs'.
If the performance was very successful the legmen might have to raise the curtain so many times they might - 'break a leg' Anyone who has spent time on stage in the theater [US spelling] knows how jealous other players can be of someone whom the audience is rapt with. By way of the back-handed compliment intended to undermine the confidence of an upcoming star, an envious competitor might gush appreciation at just how great one is and with work how much greater one will be.
The young star goes out flush with flattery and, preoccupied with his future fame, promptly falls on his proverbial face. So, one learns in time to be suspicious of disingenuous praise. On the other hand, someone genuinely wishing you well will say 'Break a leg'. This mocks the false flattery and acknowledges that that stage can be perilous to someone with their head in the clouds. If not paying attention one could literally break a leg by falling into the pit. The reverse psychology helps one to 'stay grounded' so to speak. The Italian saying appears to be translatable to 'Into the wolf's mouth,' which, to me is a reference to the insatiable appetite of the audience for diversion and novelty.
And if you don't satisfy them, they will 'eat you alive' In Italian it is often actually considered bad luck to wish someone good luck 'Buona Fortuna' , especially before an exam, performance or something of the kind. Italians instead use the expression 'In bocca al lupo', which literally means 'Into the wolf's mouth' And this thanks J Yuenger, Jan , which again I can neither confirm nor deny: " I see you had a question on 'Break a leg,' and as a theatre person I had always heard of break a leg as in 'bend a knee,' apparently a military term.
The idea being that if you tell an actor to break a leg, it is the same as telling him to deliver a performance worthy of a bow. As a common theme I've seen running through stage superstitions, actors need to be constantly reminded that they need to do work in order to make their performances the best. Thus, if you wished an actor good luck, they would stop trying as hard at the show, because luck was on their side Break a leg derives from wishing an actor to be lucky enough to be surprised by the presence of royalty in the theatre US theater , as in a 'command performance'.
These shows would start by acknowledging the presence of the royal guests with the entire cast on stage at bended knee. The suggestion of 'a broken leg' wishes for the actor the good fortune of performing for royalty and the success that would follow due to their visit to your theatre I am German, and we indeed have the saying 'Hals-und Beinbruch' which roughly means 'break a neck and leg'.
The origin of that saying is not proven but widely believed to originate from the Jewish 'hazloche un broche' which means 'luck and blessing', and itself derives from the Hebrew 'hazlacha we bracha', with the same meaning. For Germans failing to understand 'hazloch un broche', this sounds similar to 'hals und bruch' meaning 'neck and break'. Given that this has no real meaning, a natural interpretation would be 'hals und beinbruch', especially since 'bein' did not only mean 'leg', but also was used for 'bones' in general, giving the possible translation of 'break your neck and bones'.
That it was considered back luck to wish for what you really want 'Don't jinx it! Such ironic wishes - 'anti-jinxes' - appear in most languages - trying to jinx the things we seek to avoid. In Germany 'Hals-und Beinbruch' is commonly used when people go skiing. Fishermen use a variation: 'Mast-und Schotbruch', which means on a boat 'break the the main poles' which hold the sails. The German 'break' within 'Hals-und Beinbruch' it is not an active verb, like in the English 'break a leg', but instead a wish for the break to happen.
The German 'Hals- und Beinbruch' most likely predates the English 'break a leg', and the English is probably a translation of the German Thanks to Neale for the initial question. This sense is supported by the break meaning respite or relaxation, as in tea-break. Both senses seem to have developed during the 19th century. Earliest usage of break meaning luck was predominantly USA, first recorded in according to Partridge. The term Brummie extends also to anything from Birmingham, and also more widely to the surrounding West Midlands region of the UK, especially when used by UK folk living quite a long way from Birmingham.
Many English southerners, for example, do not have a very keen appreciation for the geographical and cultural differences between Birmingham and Coventry, or Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Interestingly, although considered very informal slang words, Brum and Brummie actually derive from the older mids English name for Birmingham: Brummagem, and similar variants, which date back to the Middle Ages.
In past times Brummagem also referred informally to cheap jewellery and plated wares, fake coins, etc. The root word is bakh'sheesh in Arabic, notably from what was Persia now Iran , with variations in Urdu and Turkish, meaning a gift or a present. I am grateful for the following note from Huw Thomas in the Middle East: " It comes from the Arabic word bakh'sheesh, meaning 'free' or 'gift'. In Arabic today, it refers to the tip given to a restaurant waiter. The precise reference to buck a male deer in this sense - buckshot, buckknife, or some other buckhorn, buckskin or other buck-related item - is not proven and remains open to debate, and could be a false trail.
While 'pass the buck' seems generally accepted among the main dictionaries and references as card-playing terminology for passing the deal or pot, and is generally accepted as the metaphorical origin of the modern expression meaning to pass the problem or responsibility, uncertainty remains as to what exactly the buck was. No-one knows for sure. To complicate matters further, buck and bucking are words used in card-playing quite aside from the 'pass the buck' expression referring to dealing.
For example - an extract from the wonderful Pictorial History of the Wild West by Horan and Sann, published in , includes the following reference to Wild Bill Hickock: " He didn't wear down the two-inch heels of his sixty-dollar boots patrolling the streets to make law 'n order stick. He spent most of his time bucking the cards in the saloons This reference is simply to the word buck meaning rear up or behave in a challenging way, resisting, going up against, challenging, taking on, etc. So while we can be fairly sure that the card-playing terminology 'pass the buck' is the source of the modern saying, we cannot be certain of what exactly the buck was.
My thanks to S Karl for prompting the development of this explanation. I am grateful ack K Eshpeter for the following contributed explanation: "It wasn't until the s when Harry Truman became president that the expression took on an expanded meeting. Truman was a man of the people and saw the office of president of the US as a foreboding responsibility for which he had ultimate accountability.
He kept a sign on his desk in the Oval Office to remind him of this and it is where the expression 'The Buck Stops Here' originated. Most people will know that bugger is an old word - it's actually as old as the 12th century in English - and that it refers to anal intercourse. A bugger is a person who does it. Bugger is the verb to do it. Buggery is the old word describing the act or offence, as was, and remains, in certain circumstances and parts of the world. It's all about fear, denial and guilt.
What's more surprising about the word bugger is where it comes from: Bugger is from Old French end of the first millennium, around AD , when the word was bougre, which then referred to a sodomite and a heretic, from the Medieval Latin word Bulgarus, which meant Bulgarian, based on the reputation of a sect of Bulgarian heretics, which was alleged and believed no doubt by their critics and opponents to indulge in homosexual practices.
It is fascinating that a modern word like bugger, which has now become quite a mild and acceptable oath, contains so much richness of social and psychological history. In terms of fears and human hang-ups it's got the lot - religious, ethnic, sexual, social - all in one little word. This metaphor may certainly have helped to reinforce the expression, but is unlike to have been the origin. More probable is the derivation suggested by Brewer in that first, bears became synonymous with reducing prices, notably the practice of short selling, ie.
This terminology, Brewer suggests referring to Dr Warton's view on the origin came from the prior expression, 'selling the skin before you have caught the bear'. This proverb was applied to speculators in the South Sea Bubble scheme, c. So was the huntsman by the bear oppressed, whose hide he sold before he caught the beast The bull and bear expressions have been in use since at least as far back as ; according to financial writer Don Luskin, reference and explanation of bull and bear meanings appears in the book Every Man His Own Broker, or, A Guide to Exchange Alley, by Thomas Mortimer.
Luskin says his 10th edition copy of the book was printed in Other references: David W. The bum refers both to bum meaning tramp, and also to the means of ejection, i. Bum also alludes to a kick up the backside, being another method of propulsion and ejection in such circumstances. Less easy to understand is the use of the word rush, until we learn that the earlier meaning of the word rush was to drive back and repel, also to charge, as in Anglo-French russher, and Old French russer, the flavour of which could easily have been retained in the early American-English use of the word.
Hatchet is a very old word, meaning axe, and probaby derived from Old German happa for scythe or sickle. The hatchet as an image would have been a natural representation of a commoner's weapon in the middle ages, and it's fascinating that the US and British expressions seem to have arisen quite independently of each other in two entirely different cultures. I am grateful Bryan Hopkins for informing me that in the Book of Mormon, a history of the ancient Native American Indians, an episode is described in which a large group ' This is not to say of course that the expression dates back to that age, although it is interesting to note that the custom on which the saying is based in the US is probably very ancient indeed.
Unrelated but interestingly, French slang for the horse-drawn omnibus was 'four banal' which translated then to 'parish oven' - what a wonderful expression. Bear in mind that a wind is described according to where it comes from not where it's going to. A South wind comes from the South. Sailing 'by' a South wind would mean sailing virtually in a South direction - 'to the wind' almost into the wind. Different sails on a ship favoured winds from different directions, therefore to be able to sail 'by and large' meant that the ship sailed well 'one way or another' - 'to the wind and off it'.
Also, the expression used when steering a course of 'by and large' meant being able to using both methods of wind direction in relation to the ship and so was very non-specific. Early Scottish use of the word cadet, later caddie, was for an errand boy. The golf usage of the caddie term began in the early s. Such warrants were used typically to enable a prisoner's freedom, or to imprison someone in the Bastille. The holder could fill in the beneficiary or victim's name.
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The practice was abolished on 15 January Heywood's collection is available today in revised edition as The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood. Other sources suggest or later publication dates, which refer to revised or re-printed editions of the original collection. Heywood was a favourite playwright of Henry VIII, and it is probably that his writings gained notoriety as a result. The English language was rather different in those days, so Heywood's version of the expression translates nowadays rather wordily as 'would ye both eat your cake and have your cake?
Whether Heywood actually devised the expression or was the first to record it we shall never know. Etymologist Michael Quinion is one who implies that the main credit be given to Heywood, citing Heywood's work as the primary source. Quinion also mentions other subsequent uses of the expression by John Keats in and Franklin D Roosevelt in , but by these times the expression could have been in popular use. The word cake was used readily in metaphors hundreds of years ago because it was a symbol of luxury and something to be valued; people had a simpler less extravagant existence back then.
Brewer tells of the tradition in USA slavery states when slaves or free descendents would walk in a procession in pairs around a cake at a social gathering or party, the most graceful pair being awarded the cake as a prize. This also gave us the expression 'cake walk' and 'a piece of cake' both meaning a job or contest that's very easy to achieve or win, and probably although some disagree the variations 'take the biscuit' or 'take the bun', meaning to win although nowadays in the case of 'takes the biscuit' is more just as likely to be an ironic expression of being the worst, or surpassing the lowest expectations.
The variations of bun and biscuit probably reflect earlier meanings of these words when they described something closer to a cake. On which point, I am advised ack P Nix that the typically American version expression 'takes the cake' arguably precedes the typically British version of 'takes the biscuit'. Maybe, maybe not, since 'takes the biscuit' seems to have a British claim dating back to see ' takes the biscuit '. This all raises further interesting questions about the different and changing meanings of words like biscuit and bun.
Biscuit in America is a different thing to biscuit in Britain, the latter being equivalent to the American 'cookie'.
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