I enjoy learning factoids and weird trivia including the origin of words and idioms.
Which is why, today, I randomly made the probable connection between when one has to “Piss like a racing horse” with the tactic of using diuretics on horses prior to races. This practice originated in the 1970s. After the drug administration, a horse might pass 10 to 15 liters of urine. That volume of fluid is pretty heavy to carry around during a race, but it also lowers the horse’s blood pressure and reduces the risk of bleeding related to its sport training. The practice of horse drugging with diuretics remains controversial.
A quick online search proved my assumption about the idiom.Piss Like a Race Horse – Idioms
However, we all know that the internet lies.
Sometimes, not on purpose.
An author friend of mine told me that the word “shit” came from the acronym “Stow High In Transit,” when fertilizer was transported on shipping boats, as he heard it on a radio morning show. I thought that was a really neat detail I could add into one of my stories which involves early trans-Atlantic shipping, so I did a little digging around. According to one internet source, the collection of stored manure below decks supposedly lead to an accumulation of methane gas. If a sailor checked below decks with a lantern, the gas ignited and the ship exploded.
However, my go-to source of all things word-origin, Douglas Harper of the Online Etymology Dictionary, steered me clear of that shit-pile. The author points out quite plainly that acronyms weren’t used frequently until the First World War when mostly employed by the military, and later weren’t common vernacular until the Second World War. The S.H.I.T. concept came from a 1999 online article referencing the 17th or 18th century. Furthermore, the use of the word shit pre-dates the acronym by about 1000 years.
My friend was a little pooped out after hearing this.
All of this led me to think about other idioms and their origins.
Some idioms have a unquestionable source, like “silver lining,“ a phrase of optimism written by Milton in Cormus in 1843. Still others have ancient roots and their meaning has changed over time.
To “rest on one’s laurels” implies laziness in the individual. However, the expression comes from ancient times when athletes at the Pythian Games were awarded with a crown of laurel leaves, the symbol of Apollo, god of music, prophecy, and poetry. As a reward for their valiant sporting efforts, the athlete deserved a rest. Talk about the apple turning bad!
For my characters who have lived in earlier histories into my stories, discovering little gems like this creates hours of rabbit hole time. Antiquated language keeps my character’s voice authentic.
Or does it? Would a person who in Elizabethan England use the same idioms we use today? Oh wait, they did! Shakespeare wrote of a “wild goose chase” in Romeo and Juliet, perhaps referring to a style of popular horse racing. In fact, he’s been credited with contributing a few thousand words to the English language, a number of which are common today.
When writing, I carefully tease out the idioms which can be used with little explanation. Sometimes the archaic words are inadvertently preserved in our modern dialect.
History and culture affect the “official” origin of idioms. Does “wiping your slate clean” come from an ancient Babylonian code of law in Mesopotamia (1754 BC), when collectors wiped off their counting slate if farmers faced a natural disaster and couldn’t pay their debts, or did it start with the use of blackboards and chalk for students in early schools, or shipping ? The word slate arises from Middle English and Middle French in the 1300s.
Idioms evolve from the mess that is a verbal society. These ear worms are loaded with meaning. They can be trendy (pick your texting/internet abbreviation du jour), insulting (giving a “left-handed compliment”), or fall out of fashion, such as the Victorian “You’re selling me a dog” (you’re telling me a lie).
And they’re always fascinating.
What are your favourite idioms?