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“Red Tape” and the Wonderful Origins of Everyday Expressions (Pt. 19)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 24, 2023 3:00 am

“Red Tape” and the Wonderful Origins of Everyday Expressions (Pt. 19)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 24, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here again with his recurring series is Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red: The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases author, Andrew Thompson, as he continues to share another slice from his ultimate guide to understanding these baffling mini mysteries of the English language.

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See AT& or visit an AT&T store for details. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, and we tell stories about everything here on this show, including yours. Send them to for some of our favorites. And up next, a recurring favorite, we continue our series about the curious origins of everyday sayings. Here to join us again is Andrew Thompson as he continues to share another slice from his ultimate guide to understanding these many mysteries of the English language.

Here's Andrew. Red tape is pointless bureaucratic procedures or excessive regulations, and it derives from the 16th century in Britain. Since that time, legal and official documents have been bound with red ribbon. Documents were rolled in their original condition and sealed with red tape. This was done as a measure to ensure documents had not been tampered with, similar to wax seals in ancient times.

Official Vatican documents were also bound in red cloth, and to this day, many legal documents are bound in pink or red colored material. The phrase was then expanded to its current form by Charles Dickens, who used it in a number of his books, including David Copperfield, Bleak House and Little Dorrit. To rest on your laurels means to be satisfied with a past performance and to think any future effort is unnecessary. And that expression harks back to ancient Greek. Apollo, the famous Greek god, was usually depicted with a crown of laurel leaves around his head, and a wreath of laurels became a symbol of status and achievement. And these wreaths were presented to winning athletes at various athletic games in the 6th century BC. The Romans then embraced the laurel as a status symbol and would present wreaths to victorious generals. And the people who were presented with these wreaths became known as laureates, a term that's still used to this day.

Because they were then so respected, laureates were able to bask in the glory of their achievements and rest on their laurels. And that's how the expression came about. To ride roughshod means to treat harshly, and it has military beginnings. Horses that are roughshod have nail heads and sometimes metal points protruding from the bottom of their shoes.

These are deliberately inserted to provide extra traction in wet or icy conditions. During the 18th century it became common for cavalry soldiers to intentionally roughshod their horses. This turned the horses into brutal weapons, severely damaging the foot soldiers and horses of the enemy when they charged and rode roughshod over them. To ride shotgun means to travel in the car's front passenger seat, and it derives from the days of stagecoach travel. In America during the 19th century postal express messengers became known as shotgun messengers because they rode up the front of the stagecoach next to the driver and carried a loaded shotgun.

Stagecoaches were often confronted by armed bandits or dangerous animals such as bears, and the person riding shotgun was there for protection. A right-hand man is an invaluable or indispensable assistant or a second in command, and it has its origins in ancient Rome and Greece. In those times leaders were often under attack of threat of assassination, and while most people were right-handed they carried their swords on their right. And because they carried their weapons on their right it was from the right that an enemy could disable a man by grabbing his right arm, his sword arm, leaving him vulnerable to attack.

But with a trusted ally sitting on the right the leader would be protected, but this also meant that the right-hand man was in a position himself to disable the leader, so placing the man there was a gesture of great trust. If you say something rings true it means a story is tested and found genuine. It's commonly said as a story has the ring of truth, and it has its origins with the currency manufacturers of the Middle Ages. At that time monetary coins were actually made of gold, silver or other semi-precious metals, with their value depending on the weight of the metal they contained. It was difficult at the time because of the equipment and the scarcity of metals to produce coins of a uniform weight, and this provided criminals with an opportunity. They would counterfeit coins by mixing small quantities of gold or silver with a cheaper metal, but when dropped on a stone slab precious metals have a clear ring to them compared to a dull and flat tone of a fake metal.

If someone wanted to test if a coin was genuine all they had to do was drop it and see if it rang true. To rise and shine means to get out of bed and prepare for the day, and it's a simple phrase that stems from the military. The rise is literal meaning to wake up and get up, usually before dawn, and the shine derives from shining boots, buckles and other equipment that soldiers were expected to do each morning before heading to the parade ground for inspection.

So rise and shine is quite a simple one to explain. A round robin is something that operates in a rotational manner, like a letter or petition or a sporting tournament where each player plays all the others, and that expression stems from 17th century France when peasant revolts were rife. Whenever the king received a petition for change which contained a list of signatures he would generally call in the top few people on the list who were thought to be the ringleaders and behead them. But people were still desperate to petition the king so the peasants devised a concept that they called a rond-rubin meaning round ribbon. It was a length of ribbon joined to form a circle which the petitioners would sign.

This disguised who had signed first and protected everyone. This practice was actually adopted by sailors in the 18th century where any complaints were made by signing a circular petition so that no single person looked like he was being mutinous. The term was adapted to round robin by the 1700s. A rule of thumb is a rough and useful principle rather than a scientific calculation and it's got many potential origins. The Romans used their thumb as a measure of length from the thumb's last knuckle to the tip that was one inch and before the advent of thermometers brewmasters would test the temperature of beer with their thumbs. And while the thumb has been used that way since ancient times the saying didn't get coined until 1782. It was in that year that Justice Buller of the King's Bench in England delivered a judgement that formalised the age-old maxim of English law that allowed a man to beat his wife provided that he used a stick no thicker than his thumb.

Buller was accused of being prejudiced at the time and was attacked in a cartoon where he was characterised as Judge Thumb and the expression rule of thumb became widespread from that time on. And a terrific job on the production by Greg Hengler and a special thanks as always to Andrew Thompson for sharing these terrific short stories about the origins of everyday sayings. To get his book Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red go to or the usual suspects. The stories of the origins of everyday expressions here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-24 19:52:34 / 2023-01-24 19:57:09 / 5

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