Words and Phrases from the Past



Did you ever wonder how certain words or phrases originated?  While on my quest to learn whether or not a specific word was used during the 1600's, I was amazed to learn how many medieval words and phrases we still use today. I've listed a few of the more common ones.

BAKER'S DOZEN – Sometimes 13 is said to be a "Baker's Dozen". In Medieval times, bakers tried to save materials and ingredients by cheating the customer. Instead of wrapping up the 12 purchased, bakers would often give them 10 or less of the item. By the time the customer realized he'd been cheated, it was too late. The problem became so prolific that laws were passed with strict punishments on bakers whose practice it was to cheat their customers. Because of the harsh penalties, instead of the normal 12 in a dozen, bakers added a 13th to ensure they were following the law
 CAUGHT YOU RED-HANDED – During the 12th Century was the practice of dipping a thief's hand in berry-dye. The dye soaked into the skin, staining the hand for several weeks and served as public humiliation for their conviction. Those who came across a person that was 'red-handed' knew he was a thief. 
BOUNCER - This term for a bar or tavern doorman comes from the 13th Century. When someone entered a tavern it was customary to pay a small fee (usually one brass or copper coin) to ensure against damages and that the customer did not slip out without paying. Since there was a wide variety of foreign coinage, a man would stand at the door and literally bounce the coins he was given off of a wet piece of wood. If the coins 'bounced' it meant that they were genuinely copper or brass and not counterfeits made of lead. 
FREELANCE – This term was first used during the reign of William of Normandy. He promised to reward every "free lance" (weapon carrier) that joined his conquest of England with lands, title and money. 
DAMN IT – This phrase has its beginnings around 722 AD. The Anglo-Saxon term for Viking was "Damut." When Viking longboats were spotted it was a warning for the sentries to shout "Damut" as loud as possible. 
CORPSE – This word comes from the 1400s when the Black Plague was raging across Europe. The bodies were piled in a building called a "Corpselium" where they were burned in hopes of stopping the spread of infection. 
XEROX – Now days the name of a famous brand of copy machines, Xerox was an Anglo-Saxon scribe who copied Norman and Saxon history by hand into the languages of English, German, French and Latin. His extensive work of copying documents led to his name being honored by the company that designed the famous machine.
GIVE SOMEONE THE COLD SHOULDER – Lords and nobles were often faced with the problem of getting rid of unwanted guests at feasts and gatherings. An unwanted guest was served a cold shoulder of meat; the toughest and least desirable portion of a roast, which often gave the guest enough of a hint that they would leave.
THROW DOWN THE GAUNTLET - Throwing down a gauntlet (the armored piece that protected the hands of a knight) was symbolic of challenging someone to a duel. The first "thrown down gauntlet" took place in 1462 when Sir William de Haverford threw his gauntlets and other pieces of armor on his lord's dining table protesting unpaid wages. He had no intention of starting a battle, but Geoffrey drew his weapon and his lord was killed. As word of the victory spread, "Throwing Down The Gauntlet" became a symbolic gesture for an open duel.
WEAR YOUR HEART ON YOUR SLEEVE – This phrase originated during 1255 when knights would wear the symbol of their family crest or heraldry on their sleeves when they went into battle—and encouraged the knight to defend his family's honor. Later, in 1303 A.D. it came to imply a lover, accomplishment or rank
DON'T KILL THE MESSENGER – This well known term originated in the 13th Century when messengers were dispatched to rival houses and kingdoms to deliver news. Upon receiving an unfavorable message, the receiver would often express his or her rage by slaying or imprisoning the messenger. Laws were eventually enacted to protect them from such treatment.
GET OFF YOUR HIGH HORSE! - This phrase comes from the 13th Century. At that time Nobles were given a taller breed of horse to ride as a symbol of their status and authority. Commoners would tell each other to "Get off their high horses" when one of them acted as if he had more authority then he actually did.
Gwyn Brodie


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