7 lost idioms of the English language
Idioms are one of the most difficult, yet interesting, aspects of learning a language. They are harsh, because they almost always have little to do with the modern world. You probably know what “to have an egg on your face” or “bury the hatchet” means, but try explaining that to a non-native speaker.
Idioms give us a wonderful insight into the mindset of a people’s language. You might have “other fish to fry”, but the French have “other fish to fry”. Someone might “pull your leg”, but in Russia they will “hang noodles from your ears”. I may be “three sheets in the wind”, but my Swedish friend is “round underfoot”.
Idioms don’t just tell us about a people, they also tell us about our past. They teach us how our ancestors saw the world and what mattered enough to make it an eye-catching twist. So, without more “beating around the bush” (or “walking in hot porridge”, if you’re Czech), here are seven lost idioms of the English language and what they can teach us.
An ounce of maternal spirit is worth a pound of clergy
Prior to the state-funded school system and secular universities, most formal education was organized by the church. The oldest schools in Europe were often attached to a cathedral. Thus, the “clergy” in this 18th century proverb refers to “the intelligence of the books”. It is both lessons from the pulpit and knowledge on the blackboard. But, as we have known for millennia, intelligent does not mean wise. Street wisdom and motherly spirit are what keep things going. As Irish rugby player Brian O’Driscoll said, “To know is to know that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.
A year of snow, a year rich
Long before we knew about nitrogen and photosynthesis or any other chemical element, farmers knew their fields. They watched their crops and they learned. This idiom derives from the observable phenomenon that often a snowy field will then yield better in harvest season. Today we know it’s because a snowy crop won’t sprout too soon. In addition, slow-melting snow provides moisture and nitrogen to the air, two essential elements for a fertile farm. The phrase has come to mean “difficulties bring good times” – as a kind of tempering. As long, dark and cold as the winter is, the summer will be sweeter to it. Recessions lead to booms, and struggles make us strong.
“Everyone to their own taste,” said the old lady, kissing the cow
In Charles Dickens’ book, The Pickwick Papers, there’s a popular character named Sam Weller who throws around idioms and comic lines like this. The idea behind a “wellerism” is that you take a well-known expression, usually a cliche, and invert it with a funny twist. For example, this idiom begins with a variation of “to each his own” but ends with the old lady having a special fondness for cattle. The end result is a slightly confused unwisdom. It gives an exception to the rule. Everyone to their own taste, but kissing a cow is a bit too much. Likewise, there is a Russian proverb that says, “You can’t have it all. The Wellerism, or anti-proverb, says, “You can’t have it all – some will have to be stolen.” Try it with any snap you can think of. It’s rather fun.
He who is going to prosper must get up at five years old; he who has prospered can lie up to seven
It’s a wonderful proverb, if only because of the word “prosper”. But what’s also fascinating about this 19th century nursery rhyme is that “seven” was considered to be sleeping. We are, today, quite accustomed to a working day. The traditional 9-5 of modernity owes primarily to Henry Ford who, with his influence on American labor laws, made the “working day” a thing. Before Ford or the Industrial Revolution, getting up early to work a shift was pretty normal. Most people would just do the work when needed. Since most were “freelancers” (in today’s lexicon), then more work meant more money. There is still a lot of wisdom in this idiom today. Get up early and work hard to get what you want. What if you already had essentially what you want? Well, enjoy your 7 o’clock sleep in.
The vicar of Bray will still be vicar of Bray
There was an 18th century song about the “Vicar de Bray”. This is a clergyman who is in office in the religiously turbulent years of the Stuart monarchies – Protestant today, Catholic tomorrow. The Vicar of Bray is a man who abandons all his principles to remain in office. Its only guiding principle is to be the Vicar of Bray. It’s a good phrase and a relatable story. We all know a smarmy co-worker who will suck no matter what their boss is. But it may also be a simple precaution. In a way, the Vicaires de Bray are the spineless windsocks of the world. However, if you ever get caught in the wrong part of town talking to the wrong kind of people, it’s probably best not to be too true to your principles. When you go to Glasgow, Scotland, definitely don’t wear a Celtic football shirt in a Rangers area of the city.
No alchemy like saving
Get-rich-quick schemes are not a new phenomenon. Since the beginning of civilization, if there has ever been a way to get rich without even lifting a finger, you can guarantee that someone, somewhere will have tried it. For most of human history, it meant “alchemy.” Alchemy, basically, is the belief that you can convert one metal into another. In practice, it was a recipe hunt for making gold. Alchemy was so common that even Isaac Newton thought it was worth studying. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the idea of ”creating gold” proved impossible (at least without nuclear reactions). But that hasn’t stopped fraudsters and charlatans from tricking people into parting with their money for these alchemical “get rich” schemes. So, as the saying goes, it makes much more sense to just save.
Don’t bring a bagpipe to a troubled man
I like this one. There’s something about the imagery that makes me laugh. I imagine someone who had a bad day — he got fired, his partner left him, he caught a cold, etc. — then between your buddy, Angus, with his bagpipes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan. They make me cry when played well, and they inspire passion on a dreary, drizzly day. But when a person needs sweet words and gentle reassurance, bagpipes just won’t do. There are two ways to read this proverb. The first is: “Don’t be loud and brash with someone who needs help.” The other, however, has to do with the fact that bagpipes were often played at funerals. So it could also read: “Don’t be dramatic when times are tough.” Either way, there’s wisdom in that.
Subscribe to get counterintuitive, surprising and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday
What do you think are the “forgotten idioms” of yesteryear? And what can they tell us about who we were?
Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy at Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Little Book of Big Ideas.