Daresay - Deb Meissner

Daresay - Deb Meissner

Minding your Ps and Qs and other mysterious sayings

Deb enjoys researching the etymology of words and phrases

Words can be really fun, and old sayings can have really interesting roots.

Have you ever heard the saying “to mind your Ps and Qs? One of my favourite theories about this saying comes directly from English pubs and taverns from the 17th century where bartenders would keep a watch on the alcohol consumption of the patrons, keeping an eye on the pints and quarts that were consumed. As a reminder to the patrons, the bartender would recommend they “mind their Ps and Qs.”

Giving the compliment to someone “you are a sight for sore eyes,” has changed over the years from being a negative, (meaning you make my eyes hurt), to now meaning a welcome and pleasant event or person.

In theatre before taking to the stage, you may tell an actor to “break a leg,” meaning good luck, especially on opening night. Theatrical types are well known for their belief in superstitions, or at least for their willingness to make a show of pretending to believe in them.

The term ‘break a leg’ appears to come from the belief that one should not utter the words ‘good luck’ to an actor, so instead say “break a leg.”

I thought I knew what the saying “I’ve got to see a man about a dog (or horse)” meant, thinking it was to excuse yourself to use the bathroom, but it turns out it was used in an 1866 play, in which a character knowingly breezes past a difficult situation saying, “Excuse me, Mr Quail, I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a dog.”

One I think most people understand, but are unfamiliar with the origins of is “stabbed in the back,” meaning someone has been disloyal or betrayed your faith. The term originated in Germany, just after World War I, when it was written in a report that “the German army felt that they had been betrayed by the politicians who signed The Treaty of Versailles.”

I always heard my parents make some kind of a plan, and say “that way we can kill two birds with one stone.” I knew it to mean they could accomplish two different things at the same time, getting more done. It does mean that in modern-day, but originally it is believed the phrase was from the story of Daedalus and Icarus from Greek Mythology.

In the story of escape, Daedalus killed two birds with one stone in order to get the feathers of the birds and make wings. The father and son then escaped from the Labyrinth on Crete by making wings and flying out.

It seems more than a few of these sayings come from the wartime era. When you hear the saying “costs an arm and a leg,” to me, that means it’s an expensive item. In a way, it really is. One theory is that this saying originated from the early 20th century, possibly during one of the major World Wars. The idea is that soldiers, because of their heavy involvement in war and being in the line of fire, can possibly lose a hand, foot, leg, or arm. Thus, the war would literally cost the person their arm or leg, which is a high price to pay.

I always have fun when I hear a particular saying, that everyone seems to know and finding the origins of them. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes the origins make me think, especially the ones that come from the wars, but mostly I wonder, “why the heck would someone say that?”

To me, it’s fun to find out!

What’s your favorite saying and what is the origin?