Sunday, 25 May 2014

'Pull your finger out' - idioms containing 'Pull'

In the last two blog posts I've talked about common phrases that have an interesting history behind them. Continuing this theme, I will briefly go through four of the most common idioms containing 'pull'.

'Pull your weight' - comes from rowing with the idea if one member of the team fails to pull back their blade with the energy required it's harder for the other team members on your boat to keep momentum.

'Pull out all the stops' - refers to knobs on an organ console that the player pushes in and out. If all the stops are pulled out then the instrument plays with the maximum amount of noise.

'Pull your finger out' - refers to when sailors loaded cannons. When a cannon was loaded, a small amount of gunpowder was needed to set off the cannon. A crew member would hold the gunpowder in place by inserting his finger into the ignition hole. He would (hopefully) remove it in a fast way just before the cannon would fire. Hence why the phrase means to hurry up today.

'Pull your leg' - one of the most common idioms has a mysterious history with no definitive answers. It could either refer to when people would pull on the legs of a hanged person to make sure they were dead, or to simply trip someone up. There is more evidence to suggest the second meaning is the more plausible.

Round the Bend

Recently I was asked where the idiom to be 'round the bend' comes from, with the obvious question - what 'bend' does it refer to?

Today we use the phrase to mean someone who is seen an irrational, perhaps eccentric, crazy, mad or even intoxicated. It is often used in a friendly way rather than being seen as an insult.

There are no definitive answers as to where the idiom originates from, but the most favoured theory could take us back to Victorian times. On hospital campuses, the mental institution would be hidden behind the main building. So to 'go round the bend' literally meant to use the driveway as a way to get to the mental hospital at the rear of the campus.

It seems 'around the bend' has lost its scathing associations with mental illness, as noted last year with the origins of 'Tom foolery' and 'bedlam', both of which come from the St. Mary of Bethlehem Hospital in Bishop's Gate, London, the first hopsital in Europe to 'deal' with mental illness in the sixteenth century.

To be 'round the bed' could also explain the etymology behind the phrase to be 'round the twist'.

Show a Leg

A few months ago I wrote about words and phrases that have originated from the sea - to 'turn a/the corner', to 'learn the ropes', and to be 'left high and dry'. Another idiom that comes from nautical origins which people may not expect is to 'show a leg', meaning to get a move on and hurry up.

Rather than its figurative meaning today, the act of showing a leg was in fact literal for seamen who were part of the Royal Navy and their wives . Sailors were not permitted any onshore leave in case they deserted. Therefore, the wives of the sailors would come aboard the vessels and be allowed to sleep with their husbands. When the mornings came, the men had to get up to work while the women were allowed to stay in bed, or hammocks, as they would have been.

A member of the crew would check the hammocks to make sure none of the men were staying in bed and not working. The women would show their legs over the side of the hammock to prove their sex and right to stay in bed. If a hairy or masculine leg was shown, the sailor would be turfed swiftly out of bed to work, hence the phrase to 'show a leg'.


Putting English into practice, or should that be “practise”? Confusable Homonyms!

Homonyms (also known as homophones - words that have different meanings yet are spelt or sound the same) are sometimes huge problems for English users. Below are some examples.

‘Affect/Effect’‘Affect’ is a verb meaning ‘make a difference to’. ‘Effect’ can be both a noun and a verb meaning ‘a result’ or ‘to bring about a result’. For example, the effect of the rain meant my shirt got soaked and over time, this began to affect my health.

‘Practice/Practise’‘Practice’ is a noun: ‘to put policy into practice’, whereas ‘pratise’ is a verb: ‘I need to practise my French’.

‘Imminent/Eminent/Immanent’ – Three confusables: ‘Imminent’ means ‘something about to happen’, such as ‘the imminent hail storm’. ‘Eminent’ relates to a person of high status, such as ‘an eminent king’, or something protruding, such as an ‘eminent cliff face’. ‘Immanent’ is something inherent or inborn, such as ‘the right to a family life is immanent in the Human Rights Act’.

‘Wreath/Wreathe’ – a wreath, as we all know, is noun for a circular band of flowers or leaves, whereas ‘wreathe’ is a verb meaning to adorn something with a wreath. In other words, you may ‘wreathe your front door with a wreath at Christmas’.

‘Stationery/Stationary’‘stationery’ is a mass noun for writing equipment and office supplies, whereas ‘stationary’ is an adjective for something not moving. Remember [e]nvelopes are included in station[e]ry shops, when the station[e]ry lorry is no longer stationary.

‘Altogether/All Together’ – As one word, ‘altogether’ means ‘completely, entirely or in total’. For example, ‘the house had six bedrooms altogether’. As two words, ‘all together’ means all in one place. You may like the fact your friends are all together in one place.