Nicola here, talking about odd historical phrases and sayings. The topic came to mind this week because I was reading an article about how the UK is awash with peculiar sayings and I’m sure that other countries and other languages are exactly the same. In fact many families share special phrases that have meaning only for them. Many of these have their roots in historical events. In our family, for instance, there are several sayings with Scots origins, reflecting my husband’s Scots roots. "Save your breath to cool your porridge" is one and, “There were bigger losses at Sheriffmuir” is my all time favourite. This is trotted out frequently when things go wrong in an effort to gain a sense of perspective.
Sherrifmuir was an engagement in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. It took place on 13th November so we are almost at the anniversary of it. It was an inconclusive fight between the Jacobite army and the British government forces and in fact losses were relatively small compared with Culloden, for instance. In total there were just under 1000 men killed, wounded or captured but the bigger loss was the failure of the 1715 Jacobite rising. My mother-in-law went to school near Sherrifmuir and I wonder whether this was a local phrase. The famous poet Robert Burns, a favourite in our family, wrote a song in honour of the Battle of Sherrifmuir. “Mony a huntit, poor Red-coat / For fear amaist did swarf, man." Indeed.
In my family, which hales from Yorkshire, there are many very strange sayings. For the first six years of my life I lived in Ilkley, a town immortalised by the song On Ilkla Moor Baht’at. The translation of this is: On Ilkley Moor without your hat. The song tells the tale of a hatless young man courting his lover, Mary Jane, on Ilkley Moor. The singers tell the young man that without a hat, the cold winds of Ilkley Moor will result in his death from exposure. Then, the singers chant, the worms will feast on his corpse, then the ducks will eat the worms, and finally the singers will eat the ducks and it will be like they have eaten the young man. It’s not a jolly song but it does reflect the mixture of stoicism and dourness that many Yorkshire people possess. And Ilkley Moor is extremely beautiful but in winter you probably wouldn't want to wander up there without appropriate warm clothing.
One of the few local expressions to have travelled far beyond its original borders is to be sent to Coventry, which, as most people know, means being given a hostile reception or ignored. But why is Coventry's name so vilified? One theory is it originates from the English Civil War when Royalist prisoners of war were confined in the town and were on the receiving end of a cold welcome from the inhabitants. Coventry had been a Parliamentarian stronghold throughout the war and was one of the first towns that refused to pay the “Ship Money” tax levied by King Charles I. It remained a centre of covert anti-Stuart sentiment throughout the 17th century.
However, an alternative suggestion is that the phrase derives from a fear of being hanged from a covin tree outside the city's castle during the reign of Henry III or being martyred in the sixteenth century. Either way, not very nice.
Not wanting to leave this topic on such a gory note, here’s an interesting one. The phrase “under the weather” meaning feeling
poorly or not your usual self derives from the great days of sail of the 18th and 19th early centuries. There were often so many sickly sailors as a result of poor conditions on board ship that there wasn’t room to record all their names in the log and so they were listed in the column under the weather conditions! The phrase “turn a blind eye” is also one with nautical connections, of course, since it refers to Lord Nelson disregarding the order to retreat at the Battle of Copenhagen because he raised his telescope to his blind eye and said “I see no signals!”
I love old phrases and sayings because they feel like a part of the tapestry of our history and I think it’s important to pass this on down the generations. Do you have any favourites or are there any special phrases used in your family or with friends that have a particular meaning for you?