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.
1. “The apple of one’s eye”
In early medieval 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 words ‘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 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 who tried to further their own ends by flattery to be 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 canonization 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”
The gauntlet was a piece of armour that knights wore to protect their forearms and hands. 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-hook or a shepherd’s crook.
7. “Hue and cry”
This phrase dates back to 12th-century England. Hue comes from the Old French ‘huer’, which means to shout out. In the Middle Ages, if you saw a crime being committed, you 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 now meant to set aside a sum of money for the future.
9. “A red-letter day”
During the fifteenth century it became customary to mark all feast days and saints’ days 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”.
There is also one phrase that was first thought of as medieval, but has more modern origins:
“To pay through the nose”
One theory has this phrase dating back to the early Middle Ages. 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 Amazon.com
Top Image: Looking at an apple – British Library MS Royal 10 E IV f. 210v