It has been quite some time since I’ve written about one of my favorite things: the idioms and colloquial phrases that we use in our every day language. As we have discussed before; these idioms and colloquial phrases sometimes sound completely ludicrous out of context, but many of them have very real and amazingly explainable origins. This time we will look into the history of:
Hold a candle to, One in the hand is better than two in the bush, The pot calling the kettle black, Bust your balls, It’s getting deep, Blood is thicker than water
“Hold a Candle to” –
Origin: The phrase ‘hold a candle to’ has a pretty straight forward origin. Before the advent of electricity, apprentices were expected to hold a candle for the more experienced workman could stay focused on their task. Someone who was not able to live up these expectations would not even able ‘to hold a candle’ for whom the person tried to apprentice. The phrase was first found in the writing of Sir Edward Dering where in 1641 he wrote that he “…be not worthy to hold the candle to Aristotle.”
Meaning: To compare yourself to an expert when you are unfit to even hold a subordinate position to said expert.
“One in the Hand is better than Two in the Bush/A bird in the Hand is worth Two in the Bush” –
Origin: Sometimes old idioms and colloquial phrases are actually ancient proverbs that we still find ourselves using in our modern day. This reigns true for the “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” proverb that has two possible and maybe coinciding meanings. First off, the phrase has absolutely nothing to do with the sleepy little town in Pennsylvania’s Amish County; Bird-In-Hand, PA. The first warns us against taking a great risk to try and gain more but end up losing everything; while the other refers to an ancient hunting technique. In medieval times, falconry was extremely popular and therefore the bird (aka your falcon) was a more valuable asset to a hunter and certainly worth more than two potential prey (the other birds) in a bush. The first printed version of this expression is found in John Ray’s 1670 book, A Hand-book of Proverbs in which he says, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Despite the phrase originating hundreds of years ago, the warning still remains true to this day.
Meaning: It’s better to have something than to try for the possibility of something greater and end up with nothing at all.
“Pot Calling the Kettle Black” –
Origin: In the 1620 Thomas Shelton translation of Cervantes Saavedra’s History of Don Quixote; the phrase ‘pot calling the kettle black’ is hinted upon by Cervantes when he says “you are like what is said that the frying=pan said to the kettle. ‘Avant, black-browes’. Years before this translation showed up, Shakespeare used a similar expression in the 1606 tragedy Troilus and Cressida when he said that “(t)he raven chides blackness.” It was William Penn’s (you know the founder of Pennsylvania) 1682 Quaker version of the Poor Richard’s Almanack, Some Fruits of Solitude, that we found its modern usage when he wrote that “a covetous man to inveigh against Prodigality…is for the Pot to call the Kettle black.” It is definitely a truly obscure comparison; but the phrase has found itself staying in the lexicon of different languages across the planet which has continued to spread throughout the centuries.
Meaning: The notion that the criticism someone makes of someone could apply to themselves.
“Bust your Balls” –
Origin: Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime film Goodfellas is a classic tale of mob life showcases a rare glimpsed into the mob subculture and doesn’t provide a glamorization of the deplorable acts of the mob; but what it does provide some amazing movie quotes. One of those quotes came from the veteran actor Frank Vincent’s portrayal of Billy Batts when he tells Tommy DeVito that he is just “breaking your balls”. The crude reference has been popular ever since and derives from an old Italian expression: non rompermi i coglioni which is translated as “don’t break my balls”. So where in the world did they get this imagery from? Well the true meaning of the phrase is in reference to actual ball busting. Yeah, I know. Ball busting occurs in the cattle industry and beef cattle farmers prefer to have ‘castrated’ male bulls; because they are more docile and are not as rough on equipment during the killing process. Whatever the origin and for whatever reason someone starting using the slang phrase, we know that it is definitely offensive language but it definitely gets the point across. So…don’t bust my balls, I’m just writing a blog. 😉
Meaning: To pick on someone to the point that it evokes anger.
“It’s getting deep” –
Origin: There is no definite origin to speak of when it comes to someone saying that ‘it’s getting deep’ or that something is ‘deep’. What I can tell you is that this situational phrase is used to describe a time when a person telling a story is telling so big of a far fetched tale that it feels like the room is filling up. I have always heard that it is a reference to someone calling someone on their ‘bullcrap’ and therefore the room is filling up with all of the ‘bullcrap’. It could also be in reference to someone filling up the room with the trash that they are speaking. Either way, we all know that one guy who fills up rooms every time he speaks.
Meaning: Phrase used to describe a situation in which a person telling story is spewing so may untruths that the room is metaphorically filling up with their lies.
“Blood is thicker than water” –
Origin: Family. Family is first thought that comes to mind when you think about blood being thicker than water; and that was exactly what famed Scottish novelist, poet, historian, and biographer had in mind when he used the phrase for the first time in his 1815 work Guy Mannering. In the work a character says, “Weel, blude’s thicker than water; she’s welcome to the cheese and the hams just the same.” Being that Scott is known for coining new phrases; the man known to be the ‘greatest practioner of the historical novel” was more than likely the originator of the phrase. So this phrase truly has nothing to do with the viscosity of blood vs that of water; but that family bonds are closer than that of others.
Meaning: The bonds of family are closer than those of others.