I’m sure that you’ve heard some sweet Southern lady say, “well bless your heart.” And based on whatever part of the United States that you are from, you have heard many interesting colloquial sayings or idioms that we use but don’t put that much thought into their actual meaning. Sadly most of us don’t put in the elbow grease to dig deep into the background and find out the actual meaning of these colorful additions to our lexicon. Well thankfully for you, I’m just nosey enough and love the English language enough to have a true conviction to want to know. Make sure you read all of the 10 part investigatory series to find out the meaning behind the most commonly used idioms in the United States.
In our first blog of the series, we’ll investigate the history behind some extremely interesting idioms and colloquial phrases: “Just in the Nick of Time“, “Well I’ll be John Brown/Browned“, “Bury the Hatchet“, “Butter someone up“, “Mad as a Hatter” and “More than you can shake a stick at”.
“Just in the Nick of Time” –
Origin: Despite what it seems, arriving in the ‘nick’ of time does not involve a guy named Nick. In 13th and 14th century England, the idiom ‘in the nick of time’ appeared and the nick was meant to represent a notch or small cut. This is synonymous with precision timing. These notches or tally marks were used to measure time or to keep score in a game. As time went on these ‘nicks’ referred to the pre-marked ‘nicks’ on a watch or clock that keeps the watch precisely adjusted.
Meaning: To be ‘just in time; or arrive at ‘the precise moment’.
“Well I’ll be John Brown/Browned” –
Origin: You have most likely heard the colloquial phrase “Well I’ll be John Brown/Browned” if you live in the South. You would think that to have such a specific name in a phrase must have its origins to a specific person. If you wondered that, then you would be right. John Brown was an abolitionist in the 1800s who attempted to lead a slave rebellion by raiding the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This led to John Brown’s hanging in 1859. The use of the phrase “I’ll be John Browned was used to mean that someone’s involvement in something would lead to their hanging and/or imminent death. Years went by and people used the term to mean that they would be damned. When using the current terminology, “Well I’ll be John Brown” is interpreted that that something is a surprise.
Meaning: “Well I’ll be d*mned”
“Bury the hatchet” –
Origin: The figurative expression of ‘burying the hatchet’ is based on a literal custom. Early American Indian Chiefs, upon reaching a peace agreement, would quite literally bury weapons to signify the peace between the two tribes. The literal ‘burial’ of the hatchet would mean that they would not have a way to fight one another, after the articles of peace had been agreed upon.
Meaning: To settle the differences between adversaries.
“Butter someone up” –
Origin: For many years, it has been the belief that to ‘butter someone up’ meant that you were laying on flattery as thick as butter on bread but the idiom is actually much older than that. The idiom is actually based on an ancient Indian custom of ‘throwing balls of ghee (a clarified butter used in Indian cooking) at the statues of the gods’ to receive blessings from them. The Tibetan people also created butter sculptures during New Year (a tradition which can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty) to receive peace and happiness during the next year. SO the idiom buttering someone up actually refers to the quite literal ‘buttering’ of gods.
Meaning: To flatter someone in order to receive special favor.
“Mad as a Hatter” –
Origin: You may have thought you knew where this one came from but the origin will surprise you. Lewis Caroll’s book Alice in Wonderland, may have had a Mad Hatter (quite literally a hatter who was mad) but the origins of the idiom ‘mad as a hatter’ finds its origins in 17th and 18th century France. In 17th century France, mercury was used to aid in forming hat felt. The hat makers would become poisoned and the symptoms made the hatters appear to be mad. The “Mad Hatter Disease” thusly was used as term of mental instability and thusly the ‘mad as a hatter’ idiom was born.
Meaning: To appear to be mad/crazy.
“More than you can shake a stick at.”
Origin: The origin of the idiom ‘more than you can shake a stick at’ is two fold. The idiom had been a shepherding term that referred to a shepherd/farmer who had more sheep than they could control/count with their wooden staff. This was the origin of the phrase but American generals in the Revolutionary War started using the expression to justify a battle loss after George Washington waved a ceremonial wooden sword over the British troops that they had recently defeated. The generals would say that ‘they had more men to fight than you could wave a stick at’ to make an excuse for their failure on the field of battle. Over time the idiom began to be used to reference an excess or abundance of something.
Meaning: Having an over abundance of something; immeasurable.
Make sure that you check out “Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 2”.
Images: Book stacks in Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University by and accredited to Ragesoss – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4867448