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The origin of phrases: Part one

Would you think twice if someone told you a bride at a wedding had got cold feet? Or if your friend started a difficult conversation by saying she wasn’t going to beat about the bush? Probably not. But, if asked, could you explain why you used these phrases?

The English language is littered with strange phrases that we often use and rarely question so we thought we’d offer some explanations. Here are five to kick us off:

Break the ice

Meaning: Breaking down social barriers with people you’re meeting for the first time
Origin: A very old phrase, it was first used by in writing by Sir Thomas North in the 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes: “To be the first to break the ice of the enterprise.” However, it wasn’t until 1678 that it started being used in the way we recognise now, in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras. When specialist ice-breaking ships were designed to make Polar explorations more effective, the term made a resurgence in the English language.

Make the grade

Meaning: Reach the required standard
Origin: It’d be understandable to think this related to exam grades, but this isn’t where the phrase originally came from. Grade in this phrase is short for gradient, a key factor in 19th Century railroad construction. Engineers had to make precise calculations to ensure carriages didn’t encounter sudden, steep gradients that would throw it dangerously off track.

Over a barrel

Meaning: To be at someone’s mercy
Origin: The earliest known reference to this was during the Spanish Inquisition, when one form of torture involved suspending a person over a barrel of boiling oil. If the victim didn’t comply with demands, he would be dropped in.

Up to scratch

Meaning: Meets the required standard
Origin: Now often used in the workplace, this was originally a boxing term. Fighters would meet at a line scratched in the ground. If they failed to come up to scratch, they would automatically concede defeat.

Take a back seat

Meaning: Have minimal involvement in something
Origin: It sounds like a car reference and it actually makes sense with this in mind too. However, the meaning originates from parliament, which, when seated in the House of Commons, sees less senior people sitting at the back.

Keep your eyes peeled for Part Two and find out more about the Bee’s Knees

And in Part Three we’ll be on a Wild Goose Chase

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