The Meaning Behind Old Phrases

The phrases we use might be confusing to younger generations. You may have grown up hearing older relatives use phrases that simply didn’t make sense to you. Have you ever wondered what those old phrases mean, or where they came from?

“Beat Around the Bush” is used today to mean avoiding a topic or question in a roundabout way. A person who is taking too long to get to the point is “beating around the bush.”

The phrase can be traced back to old hunting practices. Noblemen who wanted to hunt brought young assistants with them. Those young assistants were stuck with the dangerous job of getting the attention of the animals that the noblemen were hunting. To avoid the danger of going directly into the bushes, the assistants would use a stick or board to beat the area near the bushes.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is a phrase used today to indicate that the thing you already have is more valuable than two things that you haven’t yet obtained. The phrase is a medieval proverb relating to the sport of falconry.

The falconer held a falcon on his hand (which was safely inside a leather glove in order to avoid injury from the falcon’s talons). Training the falcon took time. Meanwhile, the “two in the bush” were prey animals that a falcon would be trained to capture. Other prey included rabbit and pheasants.

“Mad as a Hatter” is a phrase that we use today to indicate that someone has obvious mental health issues. The phrase might also make you think of the book “Alice and Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll.

The phrase originates with the hatting industry. Long ago, hatters made felt hats out of camel hair that had been treated with camel urine. Some hatters used their own urine, instead. A man who was being treated for syphilis with a mercury compound ended up with the best felt hats.

The hatting industry started using mercuric nitrate. The result was hatters suffered from mercury poisoning. Symptoms included dementia, erethism (hallucinations and delirium), and drooling.

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