I came across this nugget while reading a book on the history of Scotland (Land of my high endeavour, Land of the shining river, Land of my heart forever, Scotland the brave…) and wanted to share it.

Etymology is awesome. I credit Bill Bryson (author of my favourite book, a Short History of Nearly Everything, which alongside Delusions of Gender should be required reading for everyone) and his book The Mother Tongue. Language is crazy. I mean I’ve got English and French down pat. Even have some Latin (semper est magna clamor in via Romani) and German (Ich habe dieses Buch noch nicht gelesen). And since I sang in choirs for ever growing up, between the French and Latin I can piece together some Italian.

We use language every day. And it changes, and evolves, and it’s passed down like a tradition, really. And I am just fascinated by tradition and ritual, so it’s no surprised I get all giddy when I find the back story to a word, especially one that’s already as fun to say as rigmarole.

Idioms, though, are more fun. While reading To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (spoiler: lots of ways) I learned about Nelson’s Army, his rum, and the saying “to let the cat out of the bag” which supposedly described the act of bringing the cat-o’-nine-tails whip out of its storage bag before some corporal punishment was doled out on a seaman. But that anecdote is too recent to be the root of that saying – which spans hundreds of years and has equivalents in other languages. Turns out a more likely inspiration for the saying was in medieval Europe during periods of food scarcity (or, days ending in “y”). Piglets would be sold in bags. But pigs were hard to come by and pricy. Cats, not so much. Sneaky salespeople would try to sell cats in bags instead of pigs. Their ruse would unravel, of course, once the cat was let out of the bag. And you know what? Maybe that’s not what it’s about. But both are interesting stories, and the turn of phrase is still used in situations that include neither whips nor the sale of cat meat.

I’m always on the look out for interesting etymological and idiomatic sources. Got any good ones?

How do you turn a phrase, anyway?


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