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The origin of phrases: Part eight

Even the most unmusical of us make reference to it in some common English phrases. It’s time to face the music with part eight of our ten-part series on the origin of phrases.

Face the music

Meaning: Deal with what you know is going to be a difficult situation, or the consequences of such a situation.

Origin: There are, as with many idioms, several plausible options for the origin of ‘face the music’. We can’t confirm that any of them are in fact the case but they’re fun all the same. One is that disgraced servicemen were drummed out of their regiment, another that actors faced the music (the orchestra) when they went on stage. The latter doesn’t have quite the same imagery as the first but could certainly be true.

Swan song

Meaning: A person’s final action (often performance) before retirement or in life.

Origin: The origins of this phrase were actually known to be inaccurate as long ago as AD77 but the imagery proved stronger than scientific fact and it survives in the ever-changing English language to this day. It is based on the myth that a swan is mute throughout its life until just before it dies when it sings a beautiful song. It was first used as we know it today in 1767 by Scottish cleric Jon Willison, who wrote ‘King David’s swan-song’ in one of his Scripture Songs.

Whistle-stop tour

Meaning: A very fast run-through or tour with very brief pauses at important points or memorable sights.

Origin: Whistle-stop was originally the name given to a very small town along a railway route. Instead of scheduled stops at these towns, the passenger would ask the conductor to stop the train. In turn, he would blow a whistle to let the driver know to stop. The pauses were very brief, just enough time for the passenger to get off.

Pull out all the stops

Meaning: To put every effort into trying to make something happen.

Origin: Unlike many other idioms, with this one the origin is as obvious as it first appears (that is, if you know anything about organ construction). The pipes of this instrument are fitted with stops, which control the airflow. The music is louder if the stops are pulled out and more air can flow through the pipes.

Play second fiddle

Meaning: Come second best to someone.

Origin: We’re finishing with an easy one. This comes from a traditional orchestra which might feature a lead violinist. Other violinists would back them up but they wouldn’t be seen to be as important and came to be known as second fiddles.

In part six we looked at ANIMALS and part seven covered CLOTHING,  in part nine we’ll be discovering NATURE.

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