Vocabulary Rocks! UK version . . .

Vocabulary Rocks! UK version . . .

Time for more origins of those bizarre phrases we utter. These are some unique phrases from the history of our friends across the pond.

A Square Meal

The saying “having a square meal” comes from the English Royal Navy during the time of Nelson. In order to stop the plates/ dishes slipping around on the table when the ship was at sea, four pieces of wood were nailed to the benches in the shape of a square to stop the plates from slipping… hence “having a square meal.”

The Whole Nine Yards

This originated in the Great War. A Vickers machine gun boasted a nine yard magazine belt. To ‘give them the whole nine yards’ meant to use up the entire belt on the enemy.

One For The Road

During the middle ages and medieval period, the condemned were taken from London city gaols to Tyburn Hill for execution. En route, along what is today’s Oxford Street, the cart stopped and they were allowed one final drink at a country inn situated on the road. The ‘one’ they were drinking was for the road to death.

Paint the Town Red

The Marquis of Waterford

The phrase “paint the town red” most likely owes its origin to one legendary night of drunkenness. In 1837, the Marquis of Waterford—a known lush and mischief maker—led a group of friends on a night of drinking through the English town of Melton Mowbray. The bender culminated in vandalism after Waterford and his fellow revelers knocked over flowerpots, pulled knockers off of doors and broke the windows of some of the town’s buildings. To top it all off, the mob literally painted a tollgate, the doors of several homes and a swan statue with red paint.

Let Your Hair Down

In Tudor England the ladies wore their hair up, and in ‘wimples’ (those pointed bonnets you see in paintings). Beneath, their hair was piled high and pinned. Naturally, in the bed chamber caps and hats, as well as other garments, were disposed of. It was a time for wanton behavior and abandonment – but only in the bedroom and in private. Hence, letting one’s hair down was practical as well as symbolic.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

cannonballs2Not as coarse and rude as it might appear! This very common description of the British winter weather actually comes from the times when the navy fought with cannon balls. These were stored on deck, besides the actual cannon. With the rolling of the ship the balls would roll around the ship. They were welded to small stable upright called, a brass monkey. In the bitter cold the weld could snap and the let loose the balls!

Pressed for an Answer

Horribly, people used to have heavy weights loaded onto their chests in an effort to squeeze a confession out of them at any interrogation. Quite literally ‘pressed for an answer’.

Mind Your Ps and Qs

In old England ale was (and still is) drunk in pints and quarts. So when customers got unruly, the innkeeper would yell at them to mind their own pints and quarts and settle down.

Read the Riot Act

These days, angry parents might threaten to “read the riot act” to their unruly children. But in 18th-century England, the Riot Act was a very real document, and it was often recited aloud to angry mobs.

Instituted in 1715, the Riot Act gave the British government the authority to label any group of more than 12 people a threat to the peace. In these circumstances, a public official would read a small portion of the Riot Act and order the people to “disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to their habitations.” Anyone that remained after one hour was subject to arrest or removal by force.

The law was later put to the test in 1819 during the infamous Peterloo Massacre, in which a cavalry unit attacked a large group of protestors after they appeared to ignore a reading of the Riot Act.



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Great info, as usual. I have quite a “Lathan Encyclopedia” saved for future reference!

Brenda Webb

Again, another fascinating post! I love these ‘origins’ of sayings we have heard all our lives and have no earthly idea where they came from. 🙂

Debbie Fortin

I now, finally, know the origin of many of the figures of speech I use. Thank you for this fun & informative post.

Stephanie L

The P’s&Q’s one was new to me. Very fascinating. The freezing the balls off one is too. What I want to know is how they used the cannon balls if they were welded together? Guess I’m going to go research and see if I can keep from going down the rabbit hole! =D

Brenda Webb

I wondered about the welded balls too. But decided they were just ‘tack welded or spot welded’ (not sure if this word is correct) together in a small weld easily broken with some kind of tool. This comes from what little I know about welding from my father who did it all his life.

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