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Sunday, April 14, 2013

What's under your hat?

 Why should people put anything under their hats and, even if they were to, why would that be associated with secrecy? 
The most commonly repeated speculation of the origin of this expression is that English archers in medieval times used to store spare bowstrings under their hats to keep them dry.
- Firstly, keeping dry isn't keeping secret, so even if archers did store strings under their hats, and there's no evidence that they did, where is the connection to the phrase's meaning? 
- Secondly, and it would have been kinder to put this first as it entirely dismisses the archer tale, the phrase isn't known in English until the 19th century - so much for a medieval origin.
The phrase didn't derive from putting anything under one's hat at all - 'under your hat' simply meant 'in your head'.

The extended phrase 'keep it under your hat', which didn't arise until the 20th century, simply meant 'keep it in your head.' An early example is found in P. G. Wodehouse's Inimitable Jeeves, 1923:
It made such a hit with her when she found that I loved her for herself alone, despite her humble station, that she kept it under her hat. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Getting off 'scot free'

The phrase means without incurring payment; or escaping without punishment. It has nothing at all to do with Dred Scott. Dred Scott was a black slave born in Virginia who attempted to gain his freedom  right up to the USA Supreme Court in 1857.

Given the reputation of Scotsmen as being careful with their money we might look to Scotland for the origin of 'scot free'. Wrong again.

 'Skat' is a Scandinavian word for tax or payment and the word migrated to Britain as early as the 10th century, then mutated into 'scot' as the name of a redistributive taxationThe term is a contraction of 'scot and lot'. Scot was the tax and lot, or allotment, was the share given to the poor.
Scot as a term for tax has been used since then to mean many different types of tax. Whatever the tax, the phrase 'scot free' simply refers to not paying one's taxes.
 An example of the current commonly used form, i.e. 'scot free', comes a few years later, in Robert Greene's Pandosto: or, The Historie of Dorastus and Fawnia, 1588:

An early use of the figurative version of the phrase is found John Mapley's Green Forest, 1567:
"Daniell scaped scotchfree by Gods prouidence."
"These and the like considerations something daunted Pandosto his courage, so that hee was content rather to put up a manifest injurie with peace, then hunt after revenge, dishonor and losse; determining since Egistus had escaped scot-free, that Bellaria should pay for all at an unreasonable price."
It presently has a wider use of meaning not being punished for something that you have done.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mind your Ps and Qs

It is one of those phrases that many people are sure they know the origin of. 

Francis Grose, in his 1785 edition of The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, defines it like this: "To mind one's P's and Q's; to be attentive to the main chance."

Thomas  Dekker later used the term inWest-ward Hoe, a joint work with John Webster, 1607: 
"At her p. and q. neither Marchantes Daughter, Aldermans Wife, young countrey Gentlewoman, nor Courtiers Mistris, can match her". In that piece, it is less apparent that 'p. and q.' refer to a form of clothing.

'Mind your Ps and Qs' probably derives from one of these:
1. Mind your pints and quarts. This is suggested as deriving from the practice of chalking up a tally of drinks in English pubs
2. Advice to printers' apprentices to avoid confusing the backward-facing metal type lowercase Ps and Qs, 
3. Mind your pea (jacket) and queue (wig). Pea jackets were short rough woollen overcoats. Perruques were full wigs worn by fashionable gentlemen.
4. Mind your pieds (feet) and queues (wigs). This is suggested to have been an instruction given by French dancing masters to their charges. 
5. Another version of the 'advice to children' origin has it that 'Ps and Qs' derives from 'mind your pleases and thank-yous''. 

So, take your choice. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Oh, my stars and garters

The phrase's origins are very much English although it is now very much an American expression. 

'Stars' has been a favorite in British exclamations for many centuries; for example, 'bless my stars', 'thank my lucky stars' - both 17th century coinages. The stars in question are the astrological bodies and one's stars were one's position in life, or disposition.

Moving on to 'garters.' The Noble Order of the Garter is the highest heraldic order that the British monarch can bestow.  The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the emblem is in the form of a star.

'Stars and garters' was used as a generic name for the trappings of high office. Such as in  Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, circa 1712:
While Peers, and Dukes, and all their sweeping train, And Garters, Stars, and Coronets appear.
 'Oh, my stars and garters', when used as a humorous exclamation, appears to be a merging of the previous 'star' exclamations and the 'stars and garters' associated with the honours given to the great and the good. The earliest example comes from The London Magazine, Volume 34, 1765, in a comic verse titled 'A Journey to Oxford':
"Supper at such an hour!
My stars and garters! who would be,
To have such guests, a landlady"

 Stars and garters are still linked with landladies, as that is the name of many public houses in the UK.

Monday, April 1, 2013

don't be fooled today

April Fools’ Day – ever wonder how this fun day came about? There are two schools of thought about its origins. Current thinking is that it began around 1582 in France with the reform of the calendar under Charles IX.

In the Middle Ages, up until the late 18th century, New Year's Day was celebrated on March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation) in most European towns. In some areas of France, New Year's was a week-long holiday ending on April 1.

When the Gregorian calendar was introduced, New Year's Day was moved from March 25 - April 1 to January 1.

Communication traveled slowly in those days and some people were only informed of the change several years later. Still others, who were more rebellious refused to acknowledge the change and continued to celebrate on the last day of the former celebration, April 1. These people were labeled "fools" by the general populace, were subject to ridicule and sent on "fool errands."

Another possibility arises with the practice begun during the reign of Constantine, when a group of court jesters and fools told the Roman emperor that they could do a better job of running the empire. Constantine, amused, allowed a jester named Kugel to be king for one day. Kugel passed an edict calling for absurdity on that day, and the custom became an annual event.

Precursors of April Fools' Day include the Roman festival of Hilaria, held March 25, and the Medieval Feast of Fools, held December 28, still a day on which pranks are played in Spanish-speaking countries.

April Fools' Day is observed throughout the Western world. Practices include sending someone on a "fool's errand," looking for things that don't exist; playing pranks; and trying to get people to believe ridiculous things.