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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Learning English Can Be Torture, Part 1

Words and phrases from various torturous events are still in our vernacular, though they may be unrecognizable as having any connection to their grim beginnings. Such phrases as "go to the wall" and "round robin" have interesting backgrounds that will probably cause one to develop new connotations for these and other phrases.


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We learn our first words, in whatever our native tongue, as small children. Slowly, hopefully, our vocabularies increase. As young school children, we might ask the meaning of a word we don't understand, but as we get older, the tendency to ask, "please tell me what that means," is less likely to happen; after all, no one wants to look stupid. Some of us won't go far without a dictionary or thesaurus (those were the first apps I loaded on my smart phone, which I have discovered is only as smart as the user). Nevertheless, except for some rare few folks, increasing one's vocabulary just doesn't happen as rapidly as it did when we were younger (and even when I get a "word of the day" on my phone, by the end of the day I have, more often than not, already forgotten what it was or what it means). Learning English can be torture! Well, maybe not literally, but here are some terms that, for our ancestors, came from the "field" of torture, punishment, and similar activities. They have been altered in severity and use over the centuries, but their origins tell us a lot about earlier cultures.

I know that my long-ex-boyfriend used to maintain a "black book" (probably it is now on his computer . . . or smart phone) in which he kept the names of ladies to contact for a last minute date when I was unavailable (or maybe when he didn't want to see me). But the origin of "black book" is far more unpleasant (though, to a young girl head over heals in love, that might be hard to imagine than his purpose for maintaining the tome): one's name was placed in "the black book" to remind the keeper of the text that this individual had fallen out of favor. Yet, if we go even further back in history, to the time of Henry VIII, the entry of a person's name in "the black book" was of significant seriousness. Only people guilty (or suspected of being guilty) of grievous sin were included in the book, maintained by the monasteries. Because of the sensitive nature of the sins ascribed to the individuals, Parliament was able to make the move to obliterate these institutions, assigning, in 1536, all monastic assets to the King (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 167).

As an aside here, the color "black" was no accident. Early books, of course, were bound in leather, but the resulting color was generally a hue of brown. Black was not a natural color for the cover and to achieve that, the leather had to be dyed. This dying was not a cheap process so only the most important books, usually reserved for official business, were thusly colored (Garrison, p. 367).

On that same topic - "black" (which, ironically, was the surname of that ex-boyfriend) - the term "black list" was a listing of people who, for some reason, were under suspicion of something (Funk, Hog on Ice, pp. 167-168). The initial "black list" was a roster of the names of fifty-eight judges and officers of the court, responsible for passing the death sentence on England's Charles I. His successor to the throne, his son, Charles II, originated the blacklist (becoming one word instead of two) and, once seated in 1660, pronounced his own sentence. Thirteen of the men were executed, twenty-five were given life sentences, and the remainder escaped (Hendrickson, p. 77). Such a list, not much different in purpose - to brand certain individuals as criminals, whether or not they were actually guilty, was established in 1954 by Joseph McCarthy when a number of people in various walks of life, but specifically in the entertainment business, were blacklisted (making a verb out of what had been a noun) (Urdang, p. 360).

The blacklist was not the only type of entering names in connection with wrong-doing. In the world of sailors, back before unions, a strict discipline was maintained on the ship. The captain, of course, was the judge, jury, and executioner and anyone complaining might find himself locked in the brig, or worse. While mutiny was one course of action, it was extreme and, depending on the financial backing of the ship, could end one's sailing career rather swiftly, once back to port. French sailors found a way to get around the problem of being marked as the chief complainer by creating the ruban rond ("round ribbon"). The complaint was written up and all those in agreement signed their names in a circle so that no one (particularly the captain) could tell whose name was signed first. The English found this to be especially helpful and elected to use the same system, calling it a round ruban, which was soon adjusted to round robin, though no birds are in anyway involved (Garrison, p. 50). Over the centuries we still employ "round robins" (friends of mine use "round robins" in the form of family letters that are passed from one member to the next, each recipient adding the latest news and taking his/her previous information off; over the years, no one remembers who started the letter).

Experiencing the position of negative responsibility (such as being listed in that proverbial black book or being the first to complain on a ship) could well "seal one's fate." According to the early laws in Great Britain, one could be sentenced to death over something very minor. Over time, and probably as the queue for the executioner's block grew to mammoth proportions, it was decided that only the most grievous offenses should be cause for the death penalty and, in order to ascertain who should be so handled, a seal on an order from the high court would be required. Regardless of the offense or the sentence, without that official seal on the document, an execution could not take place. Of course, now we use the phrase without any paperwork; sometimes just a word or two (such as "I do") is said to seal a person's fate (Garrison, p.76).

When someone says he will "go to the wall" for us, we often look at that as being a favorable thing: here is someone who will go the extra mile, perhaps risk everything, on our behalf. In examining the English origin of this phrase and, more specifically its cousin "back against the wall," it should be noted that the construction of early English thoroughfares in villages were not set up as they are in modern America: shops were side-by-side along the walk way and the opposite side of that path was a solid wall. When foot traffic was especially heavy, the less assertive walkers would be pushed against the wall, a position of apparent vulnerability (Mordock & Korach, pp. 163-164). Another interpretation of this term's original use can be determined by visualizing a physical conflict in which a person has been pushed back until he is against the (literal) wall. In this position, he actually may be better able to defend himself (no one can get behind him, at any rate) . . . of course, that is presuming the overpowered pugilist has some sort of weapon with him. The term dates back to the Middle Ages and we still use it today to refer to a person using every last resource at his/her disposal; "walls" now being more figurative than literal (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p.114).

Getting out of a tough situation is something most of us have experienced sometime in life (hopefully, more as children than as adults). I remember having to do subtraction orally (no paper in front of me with the numbers . . . the teacher just told me the numbers, e.g., "take 5 from 10"). I found this amazingly hard and did a couple of things to delay the answer while I counted on my fingers. Sometimes, to give myself more time, I would cough a little before giving the answer; I don't recall my teacher sending me to the nurse because of those coughing fits . . . but maybe I wasn't putting anything over on her. Perhaps that is because she was well aware of the "cough" delay, as it has been used by criminals for centuries. When in interrogation, and asked for information, the side-stepping ploy of coughing was often used to waylay the investigating officer. So common was this that the police would insist on an answer in spite of alleged throat irritation, telling the prisoner to "cough it up." Soon, this became more literal (at least in what was received) as the phrase was soon applied to bribery and, in the crime-riddled cities of the 1800s where the mob boss ruled, "cough it up" would often produce a roll of bills as opposed to information, and it was frequently sufficient to obtain the culprit's release (Garrison, p. 89).

Truly, doing genealogical research can often feel like a constant struggle, but, though my grandchildren think it is akin to punishment, it is hardly that to me. I am always searching for the black book that contains ancestor information (though that is usually the family Bible) and going to the wall to get it. If I find a relative has such information but won't cough it up, I blacklist the person; or, just the opposite, attempt to be overly kind in order to access the needed data: after all, I don't want to seal my genealogical fate and never get the information. Once obtained, of course, I want everyone to have it and add what they have found: a round robin system (with sources cited, of course) may satisfy that objective.


Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row, 1955, 1983.

Funk, Charles Earle. Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1948.

Garrison, Webb. Why Do You Say It? The Fascinating Stories behind over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Mordock, John, & Myron Korach. Common Phrases and Where they Come from. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Urdang, Lawrence (Ed.). The Timetables of American History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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