Welcome to another edition of Wednesday Whatever! I bet you are on tenterhooks thinking…..What is she going to talk about today?
Well, there is a hint in the above sentence. Can you find it? No? Ok, let me tell you. It’s the word ‘tenterhook’. I’ve also seen it written ‘tenderhook’, but the right way is tenterhook. A strange kind of word that one doesn’t see too often anymore. But I love using the odd word now and again. Like ‘alas’…I love that word.
So today I thought we might look at words or phrases (idioms) that are sometimes used that we wonder where they came from. Like tenterhook.
It’s meaning, of course, is ‘a state of suspense’. This is via Wikipedia:
Tenterhooks are hooks in a device called a tenter. Tenters were originally large wooden frames which were used as far back as the 14th century in the process of making woollen cloth. After a piece of cloth was woven, it still contained oil from the fleece and some dirt. A craftsperson called a fuller (also called a tucker or wa[u]lker) cleaned the woollen cloth in a fulling mill, and then had to dry it carefully or the woollen fabric would shrink. To prevent this shrinkage, the fuller would place the wet cloth on a tenter, and leave it to dry outdoors. The lengths of wet cloth were stretched on the tenter (from Latin tendere, meaning “to stretch”) using tenterhooks (hooked nails driven through the wood) all around the perimeter of the frame to which the cloth’s edges (selvedges) were fixed, so that as it dried the cloth would retain its shape and size. By the mid-18th century, the phrase “on tenterhooks” came to mean being in a state of tension, uneasiness, anxiety, or suspense, i.e. figuratively stretched like the cloth on the tenter.
Drop a Dime
Who besides me (because I’m old) remember saying this? Come on! Fess up! I mean the ‘old’ meaning and not the drug type one! Geesh, people. This means to make a phone call. According to American Idioms:
This is a good phrase to discuss with anyone born after 1970. When pay phones were still around they really did cost 10 cents at one time. The dime was dropped into the slot of the pay phone.
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth
Another oldie but goodie. My mom still uses this one as do several other people I know. Most know what it means of course, but how many know where it came from? American Idioms says:
Horses have gum lines that recede with age. Hence older horses have longer teeth than young horses.
To “look a horse in the mouth” is to examine the horse’s mouth closely to determine its age (and therefore its usefulness and/or worth). To immediately judge a gift based on its worth or usefulness rather than the “thought” behind it considered rude, and ungrateful (it is a gift after all, and didn’t cost the receiver anything).
The phrase is apparently quite old, a Latin version of it appeared in a work by St. Jerome in 420 AD, and it also exists in many languages. An Early english version (1510 AD) appears in John Standbridge’s “Vulgari Standbrigi”: “A gyuen hors may not (be) loked in the tethe.”
Close but no cigar
I admit I use this one quite often. It means one almost achieved success, but not quite. I never really gave a thought of where it came from so I thought this was interesting. Who doesn’t love a good carny, eh?
Carnival games of skill, particularly shooting games, once gave out cigars as a prize. A contestant that did not quite hit the target was close, but did not get a cigar.
Let the cat out of the bag
I was ignorant about this one. Until now. Poor kitties. According to my reading, this is where it came from.
At medieval markets, unscrupulous traders would display a pig for sale. However, the pig was always given to the customer in a bag, with strict instructions not to open the bag until they were some way away. The trader would hand the customer a bag containing something that wriggled, and it was only later that the buyer would find he’d been conned when he opened the bag to reveal that it contained a cat, not a pig. Therefore, “letting the cat out of the bag” revealed the secret of the con trick.
Rule of thumb
We all probably know saying this means something that is usually right, but not always. Did you know where it came from?
Based on the use of ones thumb as a rough measurement tool. Generally correct for coarse measures.
Most old English measures of distance were based on the body measurements of the king — the length of the foot, inch (thumb tip to first knuckle), cubit (elbow-to-fingertip), and yard (nose-to-fingertip).
Toe the line
Some people mistakenly say or write ‘tow the line’. Alas, this is wrong! It really is toe the line, which means, of course, a person is expected to do what is right. Here is why.
This term comes from military line-ups for inspection. Soldiers are expected to line up, that is put their toes on a line, and submit to the inspection.
And there you have my lesson for today. So toe the line and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and accept my small piece of advice. Write it right!
What kind of old phrases do YOU use?