10 Phrases that Originated in the Middle Ages

Some of our most popular phrases have a long history, including some that go back to the Middle Ages. Here are 10 medieval phrases from the Dictionary of Idioms and their Origins.

The apple - in British Library MS Royal 10 E IV   f. 210v
The apple – in British Library MS Royal 10 E IV f. 210v

1. The apple of one’s eye

In Anglo-Saxon England the pupil of the eye was known as the apple (Old English æppel) since it was thought to be an apple-shaped solid. Since the delicate pupil of the eye is essential for vision, it is a part that is cherished and to be protected. Thus apple of the eye was used as a figure for a much loved person or thing. Even King Alfred the Great used this phrase.


2. Baker’s dozen

This phrase arose from a piece of medieval legislation, the Assize of Bread and Ale of 1262. Bakers of the period had a reputation for selling underweight loaves, so legislation was put in place to make standardized weights. To make sure that they did not sell underweight bread, bakers started to give an extra piece of bread away with every loaf, and a thirteenth loaf with every dozen.

3. To curry favour

The phrase came from the Middle English to ‘curry favel’, which in Old French was ‘estriller fauvel’. It meant ‘to rub down or groom a chestnut horse. In Le Roman de Favuel, a 14th-century French allegorical verse romance, a chestnut horse representing hypocrisy and deceit is carefully combed down by other characters in order to win his favour and assistance. The popularity of the work led people to accuse those intent upon furthering their own ends by flattery of currying favel. By the sixteenth century the phrase had changed slightly to currying favour.


4. To play devil’s advocate

Devil’s advocate is a translation of the Latin ‘advocatus diaboli’. This was the popular title given to the official appointed by the Roman Catholic church to argue against the proposed canonisation of a saint by bringing up all that was unfavourable to the claim. The post, which was officially known as Promoter of the Faith (promotor fidei), seems to have been established by Pope Leo X in the early sixteenth-century.

5. To throw down the gauntlet

medieval phrases

The gauntlet was a piece of armour that knights wore to protect their forearm and hand. A gauntlet-wearing knight would challenge a fellow knight or enemy to a duel by throwing one of his gauntlets on the ground.

6. By hook or by crook

Records of this phase date back to the 14th century. One theory for its origin suggests that a medieval law about collecting firewood allowed peasants to take what they could only cut from dead trees by using their reaper’s bill-hooks or a shepherd’s crook.

7. Hue and cry

This phrase dates back to the 12th century English law. Hue comes from the Old French ‘huer’, which means to shout out. In the Middle Ages, if you saw a crime being committed, your were obliged to raise hue and cry, that is to shout and make noise, to warn the rest of the community, so they could come to pursue and capture the criminal.


8. A nest egg

By the fourteenth-century the phrase nest egg was used by peasants to explain why they left one egg in the nest when collecting them from hens – it would encourage the chickens to continue laying eggs in the same nest. By the seventeenth-century this phrase evolved to be mean to set aside a sum of money for the future.

9. A red-letter day

Calendar page for March, with several red-letter feast-days in this calendar relate to Ely, such as that of Withburga about half-way down this page (17 March) - British Library MS Harley 1025   f. 2
Calendar page for March, with several red-letter feast-days in this calendar relate to Ely, such as that of Withburga about half-way down this page (17 March) – British Library MS Harley 1025 f. 2

During the fifteenth-century it became customary to mark all feast days and saints’ day in red on the ecclesiastical calendar, while other days were in black.

10. To sink or swim

The phrase refers to the water ordeal, a medieval practice of judging whether a person was innocent or guilty by casting him or her into a lake. The belief was that water would not accept anyone who had rejected the water of baptism, so if the victim sunk they were innocent, but if they floated they were guilty. Chaucer used a similar phrase: “Ye rekke not whether I flete (float) or sink”.


We also wanted to let you know about these phrases:

To call a spade a spade

The ancient Greeks had popular proverb for plain speaking: “to call figs figs, and a tub a tub. However, when the scholar Erasmus created his Adagia, a collection of Greek and Latin proverbs, he mistook the Greek word spade for tub. In his version, it was written ‘to call a spade spade’ and it became popular ever since.

To pay through the nose

One theory has this phrase dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, The Vikings were said to have imposed heavy taxes on the people, and if one did not pay it they suffered the punishment of having their nose slit. However, this phrase was not used until the 17th century, which makes its medieval origins to be unlikely.

You can read more about them, and hundreds of others, in Dictionary of Idioms and their Origins, by Linda and Roger Flavell. Click here to see the book on