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To learn more, visit Bose.com. This is Our American Stories, and we tell stories about everything here on this show. And up next, author Andrew Thompson, here to share the stories behind curious phrases and everyday sayings.
Take it away, Andrew. Blowing hot and cold means to change one's mind or be inconsistent, and it derives from classical mythology and one of the fables of Aesop, the ancient Greek writer from 570 BC. In it he tells the story of a man who meets a mythical beast who's part man and part goat on winter's day. When he meets the beast, the man blows on his hands to warm them up because it's cold, and the beast invites the man into his house to have some porridge. But then the man blows on the porridge to cool it down.
The beast couldn't believe it and said out you go, I will have naught to do with a man who can blow hot and cold with the same breath. The expression was used figuratively by the 17th century when the English churchman William Chillingworth referred to it in a book he wrote in 1638. The expression blue blood means a member of a socially prominent or wealthy family, and it's a translation of the Spanish phrase Sangre Azul, which relates to aristocrats who lived in Castile. In the 18th century, the Moors invaded Castile from northern Africa and they had dark skin. Many interracial marriages took place, but the oldest and proudest families from Castile were quick to boast that they had never intermarried with the Moors or any other race. As a result, they were pure and remained fair skin, making their veins appear very blue against their white skin.
This was taken to be a mark of good breeding and they call themselves the Sangre Azul or the blue bloods. It was later used in England to describe the nobility. Bob's your uncle means that everything will be alright and you'll get a favourable result with very little effort, and it dates back to 1886. In that year Arthur Balfour was unexpectedly appointed to the job of Chief Secretary for Ireland. Many believed he didn't deserve the job and wasn't qualified, and as it turned out, the British Prime Minister at the time was Balfour's uncle, and it was the Prime Minister's nepotism that got Balfour the post.
The Prime Minister's name at the time was Robert Gascoigne Cecil or Bob, so Arthur Balfour got the job because Bob was his uncle. And the word nepotism actually derives from nephew, which completes the link. A booby prize is a prize given to someone who comes last in a game or contest to make fun of him or her. It derives from the blue-footed booby, a South American bird that's known to be unintelligent and easy to catch. During the 17th century, sailors first came across the bird, and when they tried to catch it, it didn't escape, and it could be caught on the deck of a ship with a simple noose and food as a bait. That is actually the origin of the expression booby trap as well.
But because of this slow-witted bird, sailors who also weren't too bright became known as boobies, and the prize was given to anyone who came last in the contest, and that was known as the booby prize. To bottle it means to lose your nerve or your courage, and it originates from the days of bare-knuckle boxing in the 19th century. A fighter always had a man in his corner who supplied water and encouragement between the rounds to keep the fighter's spirits up. This man was known as the bottleman because he carried with him the box's water. Without the bottleman and the necessary water, a fighter couldn't go on. But in cases where the fighter was losing, he would sometimes tell his bottleman to sneak away with the water bottle, which would give the fighter an excuse to quit.
In these cases, it was said that the fighter had bottled it. The saying break a leg is used to wish someone like an actor success in a performance. It's often thought to be related to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, who broke his own leg while jumping onto the stage to escape. But while many think that's the origin, it actually came into existence well before then. When a successful theatre performance is applauded by an audience, the cast will return to the front of the stage, and this can happen a number of times, the curtains rising and falling on each occasion.
The actors are required to bow or curtsy each time, and in doing so they bend or break a leg as they do. To bring home the bacon means to earn money or to be successful, and it began in the village of Dunmow in Essex in England in the year 1104. It was in that year a noblewoman named Juga offered a side of bacon, which was known as a flitch, to any married couple in England who could honestly say that they had lived in complete marital harmony without a crossword being spoken for the entire year and one day. The tradition became known as the Dunmow flitch trials. The trials are still held every four years, and the candidates have to prove their worth before a jury of 12, and if successful they bring home the bacon.
But in over 500 years there have only been eight winners. To burn your bridges means to put yourself in a position from which there is no return, and is often used in the negative form with don't burn your bridges. The expression dates back to ancient Roman times. When Roman armies crossed a river to invade a new territory, the general in command would order the bridge they had crossed to be burned. This ensured the soldiers couldn't have second thoughts and retreat, so they were forced to fight for their lives.
The territories being invaded sometimes used the same technique, burning the bridges, as they retreated so that the Romans couldn't follow. And that's where the expression comes from. To butter someone up means to shower someone with flattery, and it dates back to ancient India. The Hindus always wanted to keep their gods happy so that they would watch over and protect them, and they used butter in their cooking like we do.
But they had a custom of throwing balls of butter at the statues of their gods to butter them up. They did this to keep the gods happy, and also if they were seeking a particular favour. Buying time means to stall or be evasive to gain some time, and it's got an interesting origin. It started in England in 1797 when the Duties on Clocks and Watchers Act was passed. This act was known as the Clock Tax, and it was a five shilling tax would be imposed on every clock or watch in the British Isles. Many clock owners either hid or got rid of their clocks in order to avoid the tax. But sensing an opportunity, tavern owners hung huge clocks on their walls, and anyone who wanted to know the time would have to come in. The tavern owners didn't mind paying the tax because people who came in to find the time were compelled to buy a drink.
The people would often then stay longer than originally planned, and thus they bought time. Buy and large means in general or on the whole, and it's another expression that has nautical origins. It harks to the days of sailing ships, where to sail by meant to sail facing into the wind, while sailing large, the most favourable way, means to have the wind behind the ship. But when the wind was constantly changing around, a captain would be required to sail by and large, both with the wind and against it.
By doing this, the ship would continue to progress, but its path was not as direct or accurate. To learn something by heart means to know or memorise it perfectly, and it dates back to ancient Greece. In the 4th century BC, the philosopher Aristotle believed that the heart was the intelligent centre of the body and that it governed human emotions because of the fluttering that people experienced, so he thought that it was responsible for thinking and memory as well. So if something was studied, it was committed to the heart. And the word record actually comes from the Latin words re meaning again and core meaning heart.
So if something was recorded in the memory, it was learned by heart. By the skin of your teeth means by the narrowest of margins. And it's an expression that has biblical origins. In the Bible, Satan makes a bet with God claiming that he can get Job to curse God's name. God accepts and Satan does his worst in torturing Job, covering him in excruciating boils. Whilst writhing in pain, at one point Job cries, I'm nothing but skin and bone. I've escaped with only the skin of my teeth. It's generally thought that he's referring to his gums and the skin that held his teeth in place, and obviously a very narrow margin. And special thanks to Greg Hengler for the work on the piece, as always, and bringing it to us, and to our storyteller Andrew Thompson, who's the author of Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red, the Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases.
Andrew Thompson's storytelling of the English language, essentially, here on Our American Stories. When the world gets in the way of your music, try the new Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2, next-gen earbuds uniquely tuned to the shape of your ears. They use exclusive Bose technology that personalizes the audio performance to fit you, delivering the world's best noise cancellation and powerfully immersive sound, so you can hear and feel every detail of the music you love. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2, sound shape to you. To learn more, visit Bose.com.
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