Whilst delighting in our mother tongue I take great pleasure and amusement from some of the commonly used sayings and how they came into the language.
Swallowed Hook, line and sinker, which in the present day can mean that someone has believed a tall story completely. The phrase comes from c1865, and relates to a very hungry fish swallowing the entire baited hook, the lead weight that weighed the hooks down in the water, and much of the line that connected them. So, when chatting in the pub after a day’s fishing and the size of ‘the one that got away’ is enormous you have a choice of swallowing it hook line and sinker, or smelling a rat…
To, smell a rat, something that doesn’t stack up, something that is fishy. The suspicion that something feels or seems wrong but you cannot put your finger on it. William Shakespeare may be the originator of this popular saying having used it in the play ‘King Lear’ in the seventeenth century when he uses the question, ‘Do you smell a fault?’ An alternative possibility is that men using dogs as ‘ratters’ may well have seen the change in the dog’s demeanour when it ‘smelt a rat’.
Can’t quite put my finger on it’. Meaning that one cannot quite establish the truth. Hubby says he was down the River Wear fishing, but it’s raining buckets he’s dry as a bone and he smells of beer…. Sounds fishy to me.
Rule of thumb, being a doubtful guide to accuracy, a rough benchmark. Legend has it that 17th century English Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled it was permissible for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, given that the stick was no wider than his thumb. This is not permissible now, thank goodness. It is interesting that nonverbal communications can get you in whole lot of trouble, one man’s thumbs up may be another’s confusion. Culturally there are variations that will certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons.
Put the cat amongst the pigeons, cause chaos by adding something disturbing to the peace and order. ‘Dad started to learn the trumpet, he put the cat amongst the pigeons on Sunday mornings when he practiced…’
Threw the baby out with the bathwater, is a very old saying meaning don’t get rid of something hook line and sinker, and dates back to the 16th century when families took a bath once a year. Phew. Father used the hip bath first – more recently in the days of coal mining in Durham and beyond when the hip bath or tin bath was filled from the range – then the women and children went next, by which time the water was bit murky. Next in line was the baby, or babies, because the water had become so cloudy Mam was often reminded not to chuck out the baby with the bath water.
Amused? Good, anyone wanting to ‘add their pennyworth’ post a comment on www.durhammagazine.co.uk and repeatable offerings will be posted as a collection.