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High Culture

7 lost idioms of the English language — and what they teach us about who we were

Bring not a bagpipe to a man in trouble.
Credit: Jonathan Francisca / Unsplash
Key Takeaways
  • Idioms are a great way to learn about a people and also the past. They teach us what mattered enough to make into an expression.
  • Generally, idioms employ certain antiquated expressions about everyday activities, so they give us an insight into how people lived.
  • From friends carrying bagpipes to listening to your mother, here are seven long-forgotten idioms.

Idioms are one of the hardest, but more interesting, aspects of learning a language. They’re hard, because they almost always have little connection with the modern world. You probably know what it means to “have egg on your face” or to “bury the hatchet,” but try explaining that to a non-native speaker.

Idioms give us a wonderful insight into the mindset of a people’s language. You might have “other fish to fry,” but the French have “other cats to whip.” Someone might be “pulling your leg,” but in Russia, they’ll be “hanging noodles on your ears.” I might be “three sheets to the wind,” but my Swedish friend is “round under the feet.”

Idioms not only teach us about a people, they also teach us about our past. They teach us how our forebears saw the world, and what mattered enough to make a catchy turn-of-phrase about it. So, without any more “beating around the bush” (or “walking through hot porridge,” if you’re Czech), here are seven lost idioms of the English language and what they can teach us.

An ounce of mother-wit is worth a pound of clergy

Before the state-funded school system and secular universities, most formal education was organized by the church. The oldest schools in Europe were often attached to a cathedral. So, “clergy” in this 18th century proverb refers to “book smarts.” It is both the lessons from the pulpit and knowledge on a blackboard. But, as has been known for millennia, smart does not mean wise. Street wisdom and mother-wit is what gets things done. As the Irish rugby player, Brian O’Driscoll put it, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”

A snow year, a rich year

Long before we knew about nitrogen and photosynthesis or any chemical elements at all, peasants knew their fields. They watched their crops and they learned. This idiom springs from the observable phenomenon that often a snow-covered field will then have a greater yield in the harvest season. Today, we know that it’s because a snow-covered crop will not sprout too early. What’s more, a slow melting snow provides moisture and nitrogen from the air, both of which are essential to a fertile farm. The expression came to mean “hardships bring good times” — like a kind of tempering. However long, dark, and cold a winter might be, the summer will be sweeter for it. Recessions lead to booms, and struggles make us strong.

“Everybody to their taste,” said the old lady as she kissed the cow

In Charles Dickens’ book, The Pickwick Papers, there’s a popular character named Sam Weller who throws out idioms and comical lines like this. The idea behind a “Wellerism” is that you take a well-known expression, usually a cliché, and you invert it with a funny twist. For instance, this idiom starts on a variation of “to each their own” but ends with the old lady having a particular penchant for cattle. The end result is a slightly confused, non-wisdom. It gives an exception to the rule. Everybody to their taste — but kissing a cow is a bit much. Similarly, there is a Russian proverb which runs, “You can’t have everything.” The Wellerism, or anti-proverb, goes, “You can’t have everything — some of it will have to be stolen.” Try it with any cliché you can think of. It’s pretty fun.

He that will thrive must rise at five; he that hath thriven may lie till seven

This is a wonderful proverb, if only because of the word “thriven.” But, what’s also fascinating about this 19th century rhyme is that “seven” was considered sleeping in. We are, today, pretty accustomed to a working day. The traditional 9-5 of modernity owes itself mostly to Henry Ford who, with his influence on U.S. labor laws, made the “working day” a thing. Before Ford or the Industrial Revolution, getting up early to put in a shift was pretty normal. Most people would simply get the work done when it needed doing. Given most were “freelancers” (in today’s lexicon), then more work meant more money. Nowadays, there is still a lot of wisdom to this idiom. Get up early and work hard to get what you want. What if you already have mostly what you want? Well, enjoy your 7 am lie-in.

The vicar of Bray will be vicar of Bray still

There was an 18th century song about the “Vicar of Bray.”  It’s about a clergyman who is in office in the religiously turbulent years of the Stuart monarchies — Protestant today, Catholic tomorrow. The Vicar of Bray is a man who abandons all his principles just to stay in office. His only guiding principle is to be the Vicar of Bray. It’s a good expression and a relatable tale. We all know a smarmy co-worker who will suck up to whoever their boss might be. But it also might be simple prudence. In one respect, the Vicars of Bray are the spineless windsocks of the world. However, if you are ever caught in the wrong part of town talking to the wrong type of people, it’s probably better not to be overly true to your principles. When you go to Glasgow, Scotland, definitely do not wear a Celtic soccer jersey in a Rangers part of the city.

No alchemy like saving

“Get rich, quick” schemes are not a new phenomenon. Since the start of civilization, if there was ever a way to get wealthy without so much as lifting a finger, you can guarantee that someone, somewhere will have tried it. For most of human history, this meant “alchemy.” Alchemy, broadly, is the belief that you can convert one metal into another. In practice, it was a hunt for a recipe to make gold. Alchemy was so mainstream, that even Isaac Newton thought it was worth investigating. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the idea of “creating gold” was proven to be impossible (at least without nuclear reactions). But that didn’t stop fraudsters and charlatans getting people to part with their money for these alchemical “get rich” schemes. So, as the saying goes, it’s much more sensible to just save.

Bring not a bagpipe to a man in trouble

I love this one. There’s something of the imagery that makes me laugh. I imagine someone who has had a bad day — they’ve been sacked, their partner left them, they’ve got a cold, etc. — then in walks your mate, Angus, with his bagpipes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan. They bring me to tears when played well, and they inspire passion on a dreary, drizzly day. But when a person is in need of soft words and gentle comfort, the bagpipes won’t do. There are two ways to read this proverb. The first is: ”Don’t be loud and brash to someone who needs help.” The other, though, has to do with the fact that bagpipes were often played at funerals. So, it could also read, “Don’t be dramatic when times are hard.” Either way, there’s wisdom in there.

What do you think are the “forgotten idioms” of yesteryear? And what can they teach us about who we were?

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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