In "Red Herrings and White Elephants", Albert Jack collects and clearly explains the meaning and historical sources of some of the popular idioms (phrases) found in the English language. The idea is simple, the tone is enjoyable and the findings are often eye-opening.
Because idioms have little to no literal relation to context of the subject being talked or written about, I imagine they can be present a tough hurdle for understanding the English language. For a native, however, they are enriching, funny little things that we often add to sentences without giving a second thought. Albert Jack proves that they are well worth the second thought.
Below are a selection of my favourites from the first two chapters. More to follow in separate posts.
To have someone over a barrel - in medieval Britain, a drowned person would be draped over a barrel to clear their lungs, reliant on third parties.
At a loose end - idle seaman would often be given the job of checking and tying loose ends of ropes i.e. finding themselves "at a loose end".
On the fiddle - the rims of plates were called fiddles and when a plate was overly greedily filled they were "on the fiddle".
Money for old rope - some sailors were allowed to keep hold of unusable and sell it once they got to shore (it was still usable, just not fit for the ship's purposes).
Freeze the balls of a brass monkey - the brass tray carrying cannonballs would contract in cold conditions, spilling the balls over the side.
You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours - when a sailor flogging a fellow officer they would often apply light strokes on the understanding that he would receive similar treatment if he was similarly punished.
Bite the bullet - At the time of the Indian Mutiny, Indian soldiers working on the side of the British Empire were made to bite together together two parts of a cartridge so they could used. Unfortunately, the cartridges contained either pork or cow fat.
Beat a hasty retreat - Reference to the retreat drumming beat
Pull your finger out - Canons would have their gunpowder loaded and held into place by a wooden peg. In a time of battle, people would shout to others to pull their fingers out, so they could fire at the enemy.
Hoisted by one's own petard - to blow yourself up (be hoisted) with your own container of gunpowder (a petard)
Throw down the gauntlet - when a knight threw down their armoured glove to invite a duel. If it was picked up, the challenge was accepted.