Phrase Origins

    This page is dedicated to the period origins of words, phrases and gestures along with other interesting, all-be-it worthless, tidbits of information. These are all things I have learned accidentally during research, from the History Channel and/or PBS. They may, therefore, be considered coming from reasonably accurate sources, but are not guaranteed to be 100% accurate. They are provided for entertainment and the useless trivia portion of your brain.

United States Standard Railroad Gauge:

    The US Standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US railroads. Why did the English people build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.
    Why did "they" use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing. Okay! Why did the wagons use that odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long distance roads, because that's the spacing of the old wheel ruts.
    So who built these old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts? Roman war chariots first made the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons. Since the chariots were made for or by Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.
    Thus, we have the answer to the original questions. The United State standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman army war chariot.

    So, the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's @$$ came up with it, you may be exactly right. Because the Imperial Roman chariots were made to be just wide enough to accommodate the back-ends of two war horses.

Thumbs Down:

    The signal of the Caesars to tell gladiators to slay their opponents is believed by many scholars to have been interpreted incorrectly as thumb down by Hollywood. The original term for this action is “pollex verto”, or thumb turn. (The word “verto” can also mean to put to fight, or overthrow.) It is theorized that the Caesars actually gave a thumbs up to signal death, as it is a more naturally fluidic motion of the human body to do so. The gesture we see today would likely have been called “pollex deorsum” or thumb downward in Ancient Rome.

April Fools Day:

    April fools day originated in 1582 when the Gregorian calendar was changed to better align with the solar calendar effectively changing New Years from April 1st to January 1st. As communication was less then efficient, many people continued to celebrate on April first and were therefore referred to as fools thus the term “April Fools”! (As “fools” are thought to be easy prey and gullible… Let the pranks begin!!!!)

Ring Around the Rosy:

    The nursery rhyme Ring Around the Rosy is believed to be about the Bubonic Plague. Infected people with the plague would get red circular sores ("Ring around the rosy..."), these sores would smell very badly so common folks would put flowers on their bodies somewhere (inconspicuously), so that it would cover the smell of the sores ("...a pocket full of posies..."), People who died from the plague would be burned so as to reduce the possible spread of the disease ("...ashes, ashes, we all fall down!")
    I have received feedback that this correlation may not be true. An individual who did a bit of research has promised me her notes so I may review them. I will, however; leave the story up until it is disproved.

Equestrian Statue Positions:

    If a statue in the park of a person on a horse has both front legs in the air, the person died in battle; if the horse has one front leg in the air, the person died as a result of wounds received in battle; if the horse has all four legs on the ground, the person died of natural causes.

Friday the 13th:

    The most prominent belief (amongst scholars) regarding the origins of Friday the 13th pertains to the arrest and subsequent torture and execution of Jacques DeMolay (the last Grand Master of the Order of Knights Templar) as well as some sixty senior and an unclear number of junior members of the order itself.
    The Templar Knights had been defenders of the Catholic Church for about two hundred years, but their worship of the Virgin Mary over Jesus earned them disfavor within the Vatican. But this alone did not facilitate their downfall. They also appear to have started the first recorded banking system. Through the Order, it was possible to have “deposited” money at one location and withdrawal it from another, for a fee of course. Prior to this, people had to bring money with them and subject themselves to the dangers of thieves and robbers. The growth of this “service” earned the Templars great wealth not to mention their gains from the crusades. This fact earned them further disfavor this time from jealous nobles.
    During the early 14th Century, France’s King Philip IV (the Fair) had bumbled his way in to such financial problems that relations between Paris and Rome had degenerated to a serious state. Philip had exhausted all methods for balancing his country’s books. He had stolen property, arrested people so he could “legally” confiscate their valuables, and even devalued his currency. As a last resort, he tried to tax the church. In retaliation for this new fiscal arrangement, the pope issued a dictum forbidding the taxation of the clergy.
    Phillip and Pope Clement V eventually met to “resolve” their conflict. It was during this time it is believed they concluded (presumably due to financial woes and religious principals) that the Templars had become too powerful and posed a threat. With the Vatican behind him, Philip “mass-mailed” sealed orders to every bailiff, seneschal, deputy and officer in his kingdom in mid September. The functionaries were forbidden under penalty of death to open the papers before the night of October 12. The following morning, Friday 13, October 1307, the secret instructions were acted upon, and by sundown all the Knights Templar within France, save twenty, were in jailed. Nine charges were levied against the Order and its Grand Master. The members were tortured; many to their deaths, for confessions and countless more were burned at the stake.

General Tidbits:

    Each king in a deck of playing cards represents a great king from history. Spades - King David, Clubs - Alexander the Great, Hearts - Charlemagne, and Diamonds - Julius Caesar. The suits are also said to represent items dealing with war. Clubs represented just that, a club or mace. Spades signify swords; Diamonds stand for the diamonds, jewels and other spoils of war. This leads us to Hearts. Hearts signify love… the most noble of reasons to war.

    Nutmeg is extremely poisonous if injected intravenously.

    Medieval women sometimes induced miscarriages by ingesting cinnamon oil or 2 tablespoons of Paprika.

    Cinderella's slippers were originally made out of fur. A translator changed the story in the 1600s. It was also the left shoe that Aschenputtel (Cinderella) lost at the stairway, when the prince tried to follow her.

    Armored knights raised their visors to identify themselves when they rode past their king. This custom has become the modern military salute.

    In medieval times individuals clasped their hand around the wrist of one whom they wished to have dealings with upon meeting. This was done to check for concealed knives or daggers, and has since transformed into the modern day handshake.

    The image wenches are commonly portrayed in is actually a credited to 18th century authors.

    Honey is the only food with no expiration date. (So if you find a medieval crock of it, feel free to sneak a try! ;-\ )

    Contrary to popular belief, the educated of the middle ages did not think the world was flat! The premise appears to have come from time line maps being mistaken for geographic maps.

    Driving on the left side of the road in the United Kingdom originated with mounted warriors passing one another in such a fashion as to keep their weapon arm towards each other (i.e. with their right arms toward the center of the road\path\etc.). When automobiles came into use, they kept to the same patterns as the existing horse "traffic". Eventually the horses vanished from the roads leaving us with the modern traffic patterns.

    Many well-bred individuals have learned the phrase "the Lady is always right"... But do they know what it truly means while escorting one, or why it came to be? The phrase "the Lady is always right" is more of a reminder tool then a saying. It refers to the custom of Gentlemen walking on the left side of a Lady. Back when buildings lacked plumbing, people used to simply dump the contents of their chamber pots out the window resulting in excrement along the sides of the narrow streets. A true Gentleman would walk on the left so his Lady would not tread through such filth, or in the case of multi-level buildings, to keep her from beneath it. He would much rather subject himself to the humiliation out of "chivalric honor" then allow a Lady to suffer so. This behavior is similar to the practice of laying one's coat or cloak over water and mud for a Lady to pass unscathed.

Words and Phrases:

    The expression beyond the pale (not pail, which is a common miss-spelling) meaning "outside the bounds of acceptable behavior" does not refer to something literally being "off color" as the meaning may imply. In this case, pale has nothing to do what so ever with the adjective for something light in color or flush, but rather is derived from the Latin root palis (pâlus) meaning stake, or sharpened stick as in the same word we use today for the markers we use to show our property (territory) lines. Around the 14th century the word pale was used to describe defended enclosures of territory (predominantly) inside other countries (i.e fences or walls). Two examples of this term are the English pales around their last territorial possession of Calais, France and the division of Ireland between the English lords and the native Irish. To go beyond the pale literally meant to venture beyond a limit which it was not permissible to go or "outside civilized lands". It passed into the derogatory meaning of behavior that was not gentlemanly and eventually to that of outside the bounds of acceptable behavior, hence the modern interpretation of off color.

    The word decimation originated in the Roman Empire, whenever the soldiers retreated without direct orders or otherwise engaged in actions that contributed to the failure of the campaign, they were arranged in a line. Each man counted out a sequential number from 1 thru 10. Every tenth man was made to step forward and remove his armor. He was then slain (stoned to death) by the remaining troops. This was done to promote unity and loyalty in the ranks; after all, who wants to have to stone their best friend to death or worse yet, be stoned to death!

    The phrase rule of thumb is derived from an old English law, which stated that you couldn't beat your wife with anything wider than your thumb.

    Clans of long ago that wanted to get rid of their unwanted people without killing them would burn their houses down - hence the expression to get fired."

    The phrase spill the beans originated in ancient Greece. When officials were elected, the voters dropped either a black or white bean into an urn to cast their choice. If/when the urns were knocked over, the beans spilled and the by-standers were privy to who was leading in votes.

    The expression, It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye is from ancient Rome. The only rule during wrestling matches was, "No eye gouging." Everything else was allowed, leaqing the only way to be disqualified as pokeing someone's eye out.

    Some biblical scholars believe that Aramaic (the language of the ancient Bible) did not contain an easy way to say "many things" and used a term, which has come down to us as 40. This means that when the bible -- in many places -- refers to "40 days," they meant many days.

    The 'y' in signs reading "Ye Olde...” is properly pronounced with a 'th' sound, not 'y'. The "th" sound does not exist in Latin, so ancient Roman occupied (present day) England used the rune "thorn" to represent "th" sounds. With the advent of the printing press the character from the Roman alphabet, which closest resembled thorn, was the lower case "y".

    Gold is still weighed in “Troy” ounces. This was a weight established by merchants at the annual fairs held during the middle ages in Troyes France.

    The term torture was first used in the 16th Century France. It is derived from the Latin tortus meaning twisted.

    The word shit is actually an acronym. It was developed when merchants used to literally ship manure over large bodies of water. When the seas became rough the waves would lap onto the decks and wet the manure making eroding it, creating a mess and causing it to wreak. Captains began posting signs reading Ship High In Transit on the masts so the dockworker would remember to place the manure on the top of the above deck cargo. Eventually the phrase became a word.

    Contrary to popular belief, and song, the word fuck does not stand for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”, though it is an acronym. The true origin of the word is derived from barren women. A husband could petition the local magistrate to acquire consent from the king to go outside his marriage to have legitimate children. Permission to do so was known as Fornication Under Consent of the King, hence to do so was to F.U.C.K..

     If you have any additions, clarifications or documentation you care to share, drop me an e-mail with the subject "Origins" to [email protected].


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