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5 English expressions and their origins

BY Caroline Taggart

23rd Apr 2023 Life

5 English expressions and their origins

In celebration of English Language Day, here are a few of our favourite expressions and where they originated from

The English language is endlessly fascinating. Or endlessly baffling, depending on how you want to look at it. There are so many expressions that, taken literally, make no sense.

Most of what follows is worthy of a "seal of approval" or a "thumbs-up". Let’s not "rest on our laurels", though: instead, let’s "galvanize ourselves into action" and start "talking turkey".

Currying favour

Meaning: Ingratiating yourself with your boss or with members of a club you are eager to join


Fauvel was a favourite horse who lived in a palace

Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with spicy cookery. It refers to the sort of currying you do with a curry comb –  basically grooming a horse. Favour in this context doesn’t mean favour as we understand it; it harks back to a medieval French story about a horse called Fauvel who became so important that he lived in a palace rather than a stable and even the nobility went to grovel to him. They would do anything they could to earn his approval, including grooming or currying him, a lowly task normally left to a servant.

Currying Fauvel is one of those expressions that has changed over the years as people have lost sight of its origins, thought, ‘That can’t be right’ and adapted it to something more familiar.

Galvanizing someone into action

Meaning: Spurring someone on, encouraging them to get on with something


Mary Shelley was inspired by Luigi Glavani's research in to animal electricity

This refers to the technology that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein in 1816. Luigi Galvani was an eighteenth-century Italian scientist who, probably accidentally, discovered that if you put an electric charge through the leg of a dead frog, the muscles contracted and it appeared to come back to life.

"Luigi Galvani [...] discovered that if you put an electric charge through the leg of a dead frog, the muscles contracted and it appeared to come back to life"

His experiments on ‘animal electricity’ – electricity as an intrinsic force in living creatures, flowing through their bodies as easily as blood – gave Shelley the idea of animating what she called the Creature, now better known from film versions of her story as Frankenstein’s monster.

Stealing someone’s thunder

Meaning: taking credit for something they have done or diverting attention from their achievements


The thunder machine at the Auditorium Theatre, inspired by Dennis's own invention

This is connected not to the weather but to the theatre. The story goes that one John Dennis, largely forgotten except for this anecdote, wrote a play called Appius and Virginia in which he needed to create the effect of a thunderstorm; he came up with the idea of rattling a sheet of tin. The play, performed at Drury Lane in London in 1709, was not a success and the management quickly withdrew it.

"Deeply incensed, he cried out, ‘They will not let my play run, and yet they steal my thunder!’"

However, Dennis subsequently attended a performance of Macbeth in which the various storms were created using his technique. Deeply incensed, he cried out, ‘They will not let my play run, and yet they steal my thunder!’ The expression can now be used to cover any set of circumstances in which someone is overshadowed, usually unjustly: She stole my thunder by presenting my report as if she had done the work.

Tawdry

Meaning: showy without taste or worth


St. Audrey lace was a decorative cord, more like a necklace than a delicate fabric

In the seventh century AD an East Anglian princess called Ethelthryth was Abbess of Ely. Under the name Etheldreda or Audrey she became an Anglo-Saxon saint (Ely Cathedral used to be dedicated to her) and a fair in her honour was held in Ely each October.

"St Audrey’s lace or, if you say it quickly, tawdry lace had become an epitome of tasteless flashiness"

Among the goods offered for sale were silk neckties or laces for women, which were a symbol of the saint. (Lace here means a decorative cord – think necklace or shoelace rather than the delicate fabric.) By the seventeenth century the quality of these laces had deteriorated to the extent that St Audrey’s lace or, if you say it quickly, tawdry lace had become an epitome of tasteless flashiness.

Calling the shots

Meaning: a person who dictates actions or policies


The marksman would announce which part of the target he intended to hit

Around the start of the twentieth century, marksmen giving an exhibition of shooting would announce which part of the target they intended to hit. By the middle of the century this had come to be understood by today's meaning.

 

Extracted from Humble Pie and Cold Turkey: English Expressions and their Origins by Caroline Taggart

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