Monday, March 10, 2008

Mum's the word...

I have always been fascinated by the origin of words and phrases.  One of my English classes at BYU (Royal Skousen--remember him anyone?) featured a series of videos called "The Story of English" which I loved and recently found on Amazon.  I thought they were so interesting because they dealt with the evolution of English from the earlier Germanic languages all the way to the modern development of English.  Anyway, I love the subject--but rarely read anything of the sort anymore.  BUT...I did come across something interesting the other day.  Do you know where most of our current phrases come from? Look at the cute guy above.  Yep. Shakespeare.  And chances are if he didn't coin it then it came from the Bible or some sexy sailor somewhere along the line.  I figured as much for the Bible, but was really surprised by the nautical lingo.

Take "Mums the word" for example.  
We all recognize it to mean to keep quiet or say nothing.

Mum; not mother but 'mmmm', the humming sound made with a closed mouth. 
Used by Shakespeare in Henry VI.

"Seal up your lips and give no words but mum."

"At their wits end"

From the Bible, Psalms 107:27

They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits' end.

"Batten down the hatches" 
It usually means to prepare for danger

"Battening down" was done on ships when bad weather was expected.  A batten is a strip of wood and caulking is used in the gaps to prevent leaking. The first use of this phrase is from the 1883 Chambers Journal.

"Batten down the hatches--quick, men."

Anyway, I love hearing about these origins.  Some of the most interesting I've found came from a book I bought in Colonial Williamsburg, "Puttin on the Dog."  I'll share some of those another time because they are "as good as gold!"  


partii said...

where does "no means no" come from?

JENNIFRO said...


eggy said...

That's funny the partii. No telling what goes on at your house!

What I really want to reminesce about is where "Cheetchet, no, choo, Sqweeet" comes from and also "L8R Chicks!!"

But, you're right, the origins of idioms and phrases are really cool. Doesn't it seem like many of them come about at times of war?

eggy said...

BTW, wasn't his name Rory Skousen and not Royal? I think you are thinking of the Royal Shakespearean theatre?

JENNIFRO said...

I'll give Tiga a shout about the first one (it's of French, origin I believe) and you research the second via the TRM (total. radness. machine.).

eggy said...

Correction...BRMC, Basic Radness Machine!

JENNIFRO said...

Oh gosh. My bad. I hope he forgives me.