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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.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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