From bottoms up to biting the bullet, Jonathan Self unearths the stories behind some of the English language's most eccentric phrases.
Bite the bullet
To endure something unpleasant. When India was a British colony, Hindu sepoys were forced to bite the end off cartridges during battle, something that was against their religion as the cartridges contained animal fats.
It was the objective of the Royal Navy’s press gangs to trick unwilling men into accepting the king’s shilling. One of their strategies was to buy a chap a drink and then slip the coin into the pewter tankard. This led to tankards being made with glass bottoms so that drinkers could check the contents before they started to drink, thus the witty drinking toast: bottoms up.
Cockney rhyming slang for ‘beers’.
When you encourage someone to do something risky, you’re egging them on, a term that comes from the Old Norse word eggja, meaning ‘to incite’.
Gordon Bennett Jr was the multi-millionaire son of the founder of the New York Herald. A daring sportsman who regularly pulled off difficult stunts (he once flew an aeroplane through a barn), his name was employed to communicate incredulity.
Hair of the dog (that bit you)
A questionable hangover cure involving the imbibing of whatever it was that got you into that state in the first place. It emanates from the belief that like cures like and that a dog bite would heal faster if it was rubbed with the hair of the dog that did the original damage.
Hob nob comes from the Old English habban (to have) and nabban (not to have) and, over the years, its meaning has gradually changed. First, it became associated with drinking (to give and take) and later to mean keeping company with someone.
This term, which means to do something one doesn’t necessarily wish to do, comes from the world of competitive marble-playing. One of the rules is that the knuckle must be placed in the exact spot a player’s previous marble had come to rest. Those not putting the knuckle down are reminded, in no uncertain terms, to get on with it.
Not an early reference to Scottish independence, but from the Old English scotfreo or ‘exempt from royal tax’ (all right for some), which came to mean that someone has escaped punishment.
Medieval procrastinators were inclined to say: ‘Shall I, shall I?’ Their 17th-century descendants turned this into: ‘To go, shill I, shall I?’ and their descendants into ‘shilly-shally’ (when what they really mean is to hesitate, waver or vacillate).
Sixes and sevens
A century-long argument between the Merchant Taylors and Skinners livery companies over which held sixth place in order of precedence led to this expression indicating a state of confusion.
This slang word for cash may come from the Greek word spondulox, a type of shell that was used as money or it may refer to the fact that a pile of coins looks like a spine (aka spondylo). You pays your money, you takes your choice.
Three sheets to the wind
A nautical term for being inebriated. The sheet in question is the rope that controls the trim of the sails. For a practical under-standing of the etymology, take one old-fashioned ship out to sea, release three of the sheets so that they flap around in the wind and watch what happens. Note: wear a life jacket when conducting this experiment.
Use your loaf
Cockney rhyming slang for head, as in ‘use your loaf of bread’.