Monday, 23 May 2016

Figurative versus Literal Idioms: 'Burying the Hatchet' and 'Stealing someone's Thunder'

John Dennis
Many idioms in English seem fundamentally figurative but some originate from literal beginnings.

To 'bury the hatchet' means to bring about peace between two opposing sides or parties. It goes back to the Native American custom where opposing sides placed a tomahawk on the ground to declare a truce.


When we 'steal someone's thunder' it seems purely metaphorical: either diverting attention away from someone who perhaps deserves it or to lessen someone's authority. However, the idiom does have more literal beginnings. John Dennis was a (largely unsuccessful) playwright who invented a machine to make the sound of thunder for his plays. Disasterously, the play which the machine was made for closed early due to poor attendance. The play which followed Dennis's used the same thunder machine which has been left backstage. Dennis, who was apparently in the audience, stood up and declared 'By Jove! They've stolen my thunder!' and the idiom has stuck ever since.

Where does the pudding ‘Spotted Dick’ get its name from?

The pudding was first mentioned in 1849 in a cookbook. Some county councils banned the name so the pudding had to be called a ‘Spotted Richard’ instead.

The word ‘spotted’ is in reference to dried fruit in the pudding, whereas ‘dick’ is a dialect word meaning ‘plain pudding’. It’s probably a corruption of the word ‘puddick’ which changed to ‘puddink’ and then shifted to form our word ‘pudding’. 

Where does the phrase 'In the Buff' come from?

The first people to be ‘in the buff’ were soldiers because the leather that they wore was made of buffalo hide. It had a pinkish-beige colour much like a white person’s skin. Over time, it switched in meaning to describe anyone who had a lack of clothes on.

Incidentally, ‘buff’ meaning muscled or hunky originated in 1980s California and meant ‘toned or polished’. This is where the verb stems: to 'buff out' a scratch from a car, for example.

The Origin of 'Gin'

Dr Sylvius
Gin was first distilled in the 1600s in Holland and soon became a popular drink, especially amongst the poor because it was cheap to make and consume. For no more than a penny people could get drunk. In 1751 there were approximately 7000 establishments where people could buy gin in London.

Gin was first made by a Dutch Professor of medicine, Dr Sylvius, who wanted a diuretic to get rid of excess water in the body. He used distilled juniper berries which were potent as well as fine-tasting. Patients reportedly kept asking for repeat prescriptions. Before long, the drink lost its medical connotations and became a recreational tipple. The Dutch called this drink ‘Genever’ (their word for ‘juniper’).

When English soldiers were first introduced to gin, they confused its name with the Swiss city Geneva which is why for a long time ‘gin’ was spelt with a capital ‘G’ as people believed it was a proper noun. Over time, ‘Geneva’ was shortened to ‘gin’.