Ancestral Phrases, Sayings and Clichés

Family Walking Outside

Here is an interesting aspect about our ancestors and even present-day, that is the use of certain phrases, catch words or clichés.  We can say them all the time and not know where they originated from or why.  For the most part there was a reason and a basis for every saying used in the past and today. Think back, your grandmother may have had quite of few little sayings she repeated many times.

The following is a small sampling of such clichés or phrases:

Son of a Gun This phrase refers to something in debrief. After sailors had crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies, they would take the native women on board the ship and have their way with them in between the cannons. Some of the women the sailors left behind would have baby boys, who were called ‘sons between the guns‘, especially if the father‘s surname was unknown.

Done to a Turn It means a project is completed. It comes from the preparation of meat when it was roasted on an upright spit over a fire in which the meat had to be turned by hand.

Three Sheets to the Wind A very drunk person. If you were ‘two sheets to the wind’, then mildly drunk. The phrase originated with seamen but not to the sails of a ship.  Rather it refers to ropes (sheets) which were fixed to the lower corners of the ship’s sails, to hold them in place. When three sheets are loose causing them to blow about in the wind, the sails would flap tremulously causing the boat will lurch about like ‘a drunken sailor‘.

span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>High Pockets This phrase referred to a cheap person, one that wouldn’t reach deep into his pocket to pull out his money. High Pockets can also refer to a very tall man because his pant pockets would be higher up than a regular sized man.

Beat around the Bush It is used to encourage a person to get to the point of their statement or question.  Originally it developed from hunting centuries ago. Game birds were scared out of their hiding places under bushes and then killed.

Cut through the Red Tape It refers to finding the quickest method to get through bureaucratic procedures. Originally, solicitors or attorneys kept their clients papers in a file folder tied with red ribbon to prevent the papers from falling out. Of course, when they wanted to get at the papers, they would have to cut through the red tape.

Minding your Ps and Qs This phrase means being on your best behavior.  It started because ale was served at local taverns out of a “tankard” … you were charged by the angle of your elbow … half-way up… you drank a pint, all the way up… you drank a quart. Since the Quart cost so much more than the Pint, you were warned to “Mind your Ps & Qs”.  It could also refer to customers who got unruly.

Getting Bombed When someone had too much to drink of alcohol. A bombard is a leather jug which holds 8 pints or 4 quarts. A full bombard of ale would make you drunk.

Not Fit to Hold a Candle Someone or something not worthy of mention. Originally, a menial household task was holding a candle for someone while they completed some type of activity. Some people were not held in much esteem, considered inferior, therefore they were “not fit to hold a candle to.”

A Square Meal To have a good and decent meal.  Originally, plates were wooden in a square shape with a bowl shape portion for the stew.  Food was cooked in the kitchen in a big kettle hanging over the fire and food was added to the pot every day. People would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes it had food in it that had been in there for over a week. Hence the rhyme: “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.

Frog in your Throat It relates to a time when a person has a choking feeling in their throat.  In the 1500s, the medieval physicians believed that the secretions of a frog could cure a cough if they were coated on the throat of the patient. The frog was placed in the mouth of the sufferer and remained there until the physician decided that the treatment was complete.

Quick as a Wink It is someone or something that is very fast.  It was in 1825 that a person’s actual wink was measured.  It was 1/10 of a second.


< Return To Blog Apparently this came from my Scottish grandfather but it was "Every mickle makes a muckle." In other words, those pennies add up if you save 'em!"
Elisanne 10/03/12

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