Metaphors, idioms, superstitions are such an integral part of our everyday language we probably don’t even notice using them. Well, a couple of years ago I began noticing their use talking with friends, listening to others wherever the spoken language occurs. In addition to just being aware, I also began wondering about their origin. I thought it would be fun to share what I discovered as I researched some of them.
A metaphor can be defined simply as using one thing to describe another – time flies, he kicked the bucket, that meeting was my worst nightmare, etc. We use 6 metaphors every minute. The brain is a big fan of metaphors. Metaphors help us to understand abstracts, symbols and concepts. They certainly are integral to language and communicating with others.
An idiom is a phrase or an expression that has a figurative meaning - it was raining cats and dogs, a piece of cake, a taste of your own medicine.
Superstition we all get. Here is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition anyway – a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic, chance or false conception of causation. Some familiar superstitions – walking under a ladder is bad luck, Friday the 13th, breaking a mirror is 7 years bad luck, toss spilled salt over left shoulder for good luck, finding a horseshoe is good luck.
Under the Weather – In the old days, when a sailor was feeling seasick, "he was sent down below to help his recovery, under the deck and away from the weather. Thus, under the weather.
Letting the cat out of the bag - Up to and including the 1700s, a common street fraud included replacing valuable pigs with less valuable cats and selling them in bags. When a cat was let out of a bag, the jig was up.
Butter someone up - A customary religious act in ancient India included throwing butter balls at the statues of gods to seek good fortune and their favor.
Flying off the handle - This one is said to come from poorly made axes of the 1800s that would literally detach from the handle. Yikes!
Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water - This idiom allegedly comes from a time when the household bathed in the same water; first, the lord would bathe, then the men, the lady, the women, the children, and the babies last. The bath water is said to have been so dirty that there was a risk of throwing the baby out with the water once everyone was done bathing!
Mind your P’s and Q’s - There are many origin stories for this one, but perhaps the one that is most fun is that bartenders would keep track of the pints and quarts consumed by their patrons with the letters “P” and “Q.”
Mad as a hatter - This did not come from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries — well before Lewis Caroll’s book was published. In 17th century France, poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury for the hat felt. The “Mad Hatter Disease” was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear “mad.”
And some superstitions:
Walking under a ladder is bad luck - This superstition really does originate 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. A ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle, and Egyptians regarded this shape as sacred (as exhibited, for example, by their pyramids). To them, triangles represented the trinity of the gods, and to pass through a triangle was to desecrate them.
Knocking on wood – One origin suggests that some of these tree worshippers laid their hands on a tree when asking for favor from the spirits/gods that lived inside it, or did it after a run of good luck as a show of gratitude to the supernatural powers. Over the centuries, the religious rite may have morphed into the superstitious knock that acknowledges luck and keeps it going.
Spilled salt - Spilling salt has been considered unlucky for thousands of years. Around 3,500 B.C., the ancient Sumerians first took to nullifying the bad luck of spilled salt by throwing a pinch of it over their left shoulders. This ritual spread to the Egyptians, the Assyrians and later, the Greeks.
Hang a horseshoe on your door open-end-up for good luck - The horseshoe is considered to be a good luck charm in a wide range of cultures. Belief in its magical powers traces back to the Greeks, who thought the element iron had the ability to ward off evil. Not only were horseshoes wrought of iron, they also took the shape of the crescent moon in fourth century Greece for good fortune.
Now, throw a pinch of salt over your left shoulder and have a good day. Remember, however, when you go out be sure not to step on any cracks.
Comments are welcomed.