10 Long-Forgotten Expressions To Drop Into Conversation

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When someone says that they “ate humble pie,” they mean that they had to admit to a mistake or else to something humiliating or degrading. But what they literally mean is that they ate “numbles pie”—that is, a pie made from the umbles or numbles, or internal organs, of an animal. Because pies like this were once considered low-quality food fit only the poorest of people, an association with being humble was quick to follow.

But humble pie isn’t alone among the peculiar, weird-sounding expressions we use in the English language. Whether you’re sailing three sheets to the wind or flying by the seat of your pants, English allows you to drop what are (at face value at least) some pretty peculiar idioms and expressions into your everyday conversation.

1. IT’S TOO LATE TO WHET THE SWORD WHEN THE TRUMPET BLOWS

From taking time by the forelock to seizing the day, plenty of proverbs and expressions warn against procrastination or ill-preparedness—to which you can add this one. Whet here means “to sharpen,” and the trumpet that’s being blown is a military one signaling the start of a battle. Put another way, you should always be prepared: It’s too late to start sharpening your sword when the battle has already begun.

2. “THE CASE IS ALTERED,” QUOTH PLOWDEN

Edmund Plowden was a renowned English lawyer of the Elizabethan period, while The Case Is Altered was the title of an early 17th century play by Ben Jonson. It’s possible that no real life event should have led to the two being connected in this expression, but plenty of anecdotes have arisen that purport to explain it. According to one, Plowden was involved in the case of some hogs that had escaped and ran amok on the plaintiff’s land, and was about to push the court to rule that the hog’s owner pay for the damage, when it was pointed out that they were his. “Nay then,” Plowden apparently replied, “then the case is altered.” Regardless of whether this anecdote (or any of the others that purport to explain this phrase) is true or not, the case is altered, quoth Plowden has been used proverbially in English since the mid-1600s at least to point out that new evidence or facts have come to light. It's also used in a less flattering way to mean when a lawyer switches sides for nefarious reasons, such as larger fees.

3. A LAZY SHEEP THINKS ITS WOOL IS HEAVY

An 18th century expression alluding to someone who consistently finds fault in even good things. It would also come to mean someone who is so lazy that they can’t take care of the basics.

4. TO RUN BEFORE YOUR HORSE TO MARKET

A warning from the 15th century, that Shakespeare used in Richard III: If you run before your horse to market, then you anticipate success before it’s guaranteed. Essentially, it’s an alternative to not counting your chickens before they’re hatched.

5. LITTLE BIRDS MAY PECK A DEAD LION

Dating from the late 19th century and thought to originate in Spanish, little birds may peck a dead lion implies that only once a strong opponent is weakened or out of the game do weaker players or participants start to act.

6. A KING’S CHEESE GOES HALF AWAY IN PARINGS

A paring is a thin sliver of waste material cut or scraped off something larger. The old adage that a king’s cheese goes half away in parings might allude to the fact that to ensure his majesty is only ever served the very best food, every time the king wanted to eat some cheese his servants would have to trim away the dry outer edge of the block, leaving only the freshest cheese on his plate. Another possibility is that there are so many people wanting to take tiny slivers of the king’s cheese that these bits add up to half the block. Either way, a lot of the king’s cheese ends up wasted. This saying was first recorded in 1735 in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack as the longer “The King’s cheese is half wasted in parings: But no matter, ’tis made of the peoples milk.”

7. TO END IN A WHEW, LIKE CAWTHORNE WAKES

A whew is a whimper or a soft blow, like that used to blow out a candle. Cawthorne is a village in South Yorkshire, England, while a wakes is a local village festival, traditionally one held on the feast day of the patron saint of the local parish church. If something ends in a whew, like Cawthorne wakes, then it ends in a disappointment or an anti-climax: Apparently, the festival at Cawthorne would typically end with the parish authorities unceremoniously blowing out the festival’s candles or lanterns.

8. “THAT’S EXTER,” SAID THE OLD WOMAN WHEN SHE SAW KERTON

Exter is Exeter, a city in the southwest of England, and Kerton is Crediton, a small town lying to its northwest. This old dialect expression is attributed to a (probably apocryphal) “old woman” traveling on foot to Exeter for the first time. Suddenly seeing the impressive spire of the Church of the Holy Cross in Crediton emerge on the horizon, she presumed she was at long last approaching Exeter Cathedral and that her long, tiresome journey was nearing its end; in fact, she would still have roughly another eight miles to walk before she got to Exeter. Whether true or not, this anecdote inspired this bizarre expression referring to someone who thinks their work is finished, only to find there’s just that little bit more to get done.

9. TO LEAP OVER THE HEDGE BEFORE YOU COME TO THE STILE

Anyone familiar with walking in the countryside will know that a stile is a wooden step or rung used for climbing over a fence or wall. To make things unnecessarily difficult for yourself by acting prematurely or too quickly, ultimately, is to leap the hedge before you come to the stile.

10. “FIRE,” QUOTH THE FOX, WHEN HE PISSED ON THE ICE

As proverbs and sayings go, you can’t get much stranger than a urinating fox. Apparently, the origin of this expression refers to the fact that the fox’s actions would make the ice steam, fooling the fox into thinking he could produce fire. As a result, this old adage—which dates back to the 1600s, at least—refers to someone who unrealistically expects too much from a plan or undertaking that is liable not to succeed.

13 Words That Changed From Negative to Positive Meanings (or Vice Versa)

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

One of the main reasons for the existence of slang is to keep the outsiders from understanding the insiders. Making up new words is one way to achieve this, but it’s not the only one. A favorite trick for the young to play on the old is to take an established word and completely change its connotations from bad to good. In recent decades we’ve seen sick, wicked, ill, and bad recruited to the “hearty positive endorsement” side. While some would lament the decline of language suggested by such wanton disregard for word meaning, this kind of meaning switch is nothing new. Here are 13 fine, upstanding words that long ago switched from negative to positive (or vice versa).

1. Fun

Fun was first a verb meaning "to cheat or hoax." It came from fon, an old word for "fool." It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of,” but now also means "a merry good time."

2. Fond

Fond also goes back to fon, and it once meant "foolish and weak-minded." It came to then mean over-affectionate in a negative, cloying way. Now it’s positive, but at root, being fond of something is basically being a fool for it.

3. Terrific

The root of terrific is terror, and it first meant terror-inducing. It then became an exaggerated intensifier (“terrifically good!” = so good it’s terrifying) and then a positive term all on its own.

4. Tremendous

Like terrific, tremendous has its roots in fear. Something tremendous was so terrible it caused trembling or shaking. It also became an intensifier (“tremendously good!”) before it went all the way positive.

5. Awe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe originally referred to “immediate and active fear.” It then became associated with religious, reverential fear, and then to a feeling of being humbled at the sublime. While awful retains the negative sense, awesome took on the positive one.

6. Grin

To grin was to bare the teeth in a threatening display of anger or pain. It then became the term for a forced, fake smile, before settling into an expression of happiness.

7. Smart

Smart was first used in Old English to describe things that cause pain. Weapons, nails, and darts were smart. Shakespeare’s Henry VI has the phrase “as smart as lizards’ stings.” It took on connotations of sharpness, quickness, intensity, and, through smart, pain-causing words or wit came to stand for quick intelligence and fashionableness.

8. Egregious

Egregious was a positive word that turned negative. It used to mean "eminent and distinguished," but because people started using it sarcastically, it came to mean "bad and offensive."

9. Sad

Sad started with the meaning of "satisfied or sated," also sometimes "steadfast" or "firm." It then went from meaning "serious," to "grave," to "sorrowful."

10. Smug

Smug first meant "crisp, tidy, and presentable." A well-dressed person was smug in this way, and it later came to mean "self-satisfied and conceited."

11. Devious

Devious comes from de via, "off the way." It once meant "distant" or "off the road." It took on the meaning of wandering—there were devious comets, devious minnows—and, because to do wrong was to stray from the right path, it eventually came to mean "scheming and deceitful."

12. Facetious

To be facetious was once to have elegant, gracious, high style, and to be jokey and witty. It came from a Latin term for playful humorousness. It is still connected with a type of humor, but with an unproductive or annoying connotation.

13. Bully

Bully used to be a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and than a coward who picks on others.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

The Definition of Museum Could Be Changing

The Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
The Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
roman_slavik/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve always casually defined museum as “a place to see art or historical objects,” you’re not necessarily wrong. But the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has a more specific, official guideline that defines a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.”

ICOM’s 40,000 members have been adhering to this definition for almost 50 years to represent more than 20,000 museums around the world. Now, The Art Newspaper reports, some members want to change it.

On July 22, the organization’s executive board convened in Paris and composed a new definition that Danish curator Jette Sandahl believes better suits the demands of “cultural democracy.” By this updated description, a museum must “acknowledg[e] and addres[s] the conflicts and challenges of the present,” “work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world,” and “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing.”

The proposal immediately elicited harsh reactions from a number of other members of the museum community, who felt the text was too ideological and vague. François Mairesse, a professor at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and the chair of the International Committee of Museology, even resigned from the revisory commission—led by Sandahl—earlier this summer when he realized the new definition wasn’t, by his standards, really a definition. “This is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant,” he told The Art Newspaper. “It would be disastrous to impose only one type of museum.”

The current plan is for ICOM members to vote on the definition at the general assembly on September 7 in Kyoto, Japan, but 24 national branches and five museums’ international committees have petitioned to postpone the vote—they’d like some time to create their own definition for museum and present it as a counter-proposal.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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