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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Learning English can be Torture, Part 3

Do you often feel as if you are bouncing from pillar to post in your genealogical research? Do you need to be egged on to keep going? Do you lean over backwards, going through fire and water to accomplish the research goals? Then, according to the origins of these phrases, you have been enduring a great deal of punishment! Check this month's article for an explanation.


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In last month's article we looked at seven words that had some reference to pain, suffering, punishment, or the levying of legal charges. This article will expand on that by exploring the origins of phrases dealing with the same subject matter. One reason I research these origins is to uncover what my ancestors may have meant when they uttered the same words I do. While a rose, by any other name, is still a rose, there are different connotations to that word (some think of the thorns, others think of the color red - or yellow, or white - and still others think of the work it takes to cultivate the plant).

I am fascinated by how a particular word with a specific meaning is misheard by the listener, then repeated as understood, thus transmitting an erroneous word for a completely unrelated action or event (sort of like the old game of "telephone"). Over the centuries, this has happened countless times. Sometimes it is due to someone who speaks English misunderstanding a word from French (e.g., the French word for "egg" - often used to mean "zero," as in "he laid an egg" meaning "he produced nothing" - is oeuf but is almost always written with the article le or la in front of it; in this case, it would be l'oeuf and was used in tennis to mean "zero"; when the English got a-hold of the game, they kept the terminology with their own pronunciation, hence "love" became the tennis term for "nothing" [Castle, p. 156]).

This example of the misinterpretation of "egg" in French leads me to the phrase "to egg on" (meaning "to urge someone to get moving"). One might think it referred to people throwing eggs at others to get them to leave (not unlike the unpleasant behavior of throwing eggs on the stage when the acting or the performance is below par - something that is, gratefully, rarely a part of the theater experience in modern America). But this is not the case (not that it doesn't make sense, of course). The Anglo-Saxon losers in the Norman Conquest were chained together and forced to migrate from one location to the next (not unlike herding cattle). As the peasant prisoners would tire and start to lag behind, the Normans would get them to pick up the pace by pricking them with spear points. This action was called ecg. Over the years, as the Anglo-Saxon language disappeared, the term ecg was still used in the stories of the elders having been "ecged on." What's a child hearing this to do but put it into a known context (how they viewed this process will be left to your imagination) (Garrison, pp. 290-291).

Wars have been part of civilization from the beginning of time, or so we suspect. But not all those who go into military service are fit for the task at hand. When a soldier was found lacking or guilty of a crime, but not one warranting a death penalty, he would find himself having to "face the music." While his former comrades looked on, the dishonorably discharged soldier would be "drummed out" of the unit ("The Rogue's March" was the piece played in the English Army for this task). From this literal "facing the music" we get the phrase that references any difficult task, for few things are harder than being so publicly humiliated, however warranted (Garrison, pp. 298-299; Morris & Morris, p. 213).

OK, so maybe there are more horrible things than being drummed out of the service. Take, for instance, capital punishment: for most of us, we hear the phrase and immediately focus on "death penalty." And it has always had that idea eventuality attached to it, but we need to dissect the first word in the term to understand how our long-ago ancestors interpreted it. Caput is Latin for "head" (so if someone's caput is caput, he has definitely lost his head); and in Old England, there were many crimes for which the punishment was, indeed, "capital" - the alleged criminal was beheaded. Over time, and crossing class levels, the commoners were not treated so humanely (?): their punishment was hanging; beheading was reserved for the nobility. However it is exacted in whatever culture and time period, the term "capital punishment" refers to a penalty that the receiver does not survive (Hendrickson, p. 127).

My mother was one who would "lean over backwards" to help someone in need. She was generous to a fault. I had no idea that the term for this benevolent behavior was directly a result of an effort not to appear partial. While in America, the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" is the official stance about an accused person, in England, even as recently as 300 years ago, the tendency was to look at an alleged perpetrator as guilty until proven otherwise. The judges of the period would tend to "lean" towards the guilty verdict (see [|last month's article]] for the origin of this word): in cases of treason, the guilty party forfeited all he owned to the monarchy, making that leaning a favorable direction, in the perspective of the crown. But times changed; campaigns to appoint only non-prejudiced judges began to prevail, and new judges, more open to the rights of the possibly wrongly accused, caused them to "lean" - but this time to lean "backwards" towards a less partial (to the crown) verdict. So those who "leaned over backwards" were considered to be fair, but maybe to a fault, going "beyond the letter of the law" (Garrison, p. 371). Nevertheless, if it was my head on the chopping block, I'd be very grateful for the newly appointed judges.

On this same subject - the behavior its consequences of the undesirables of a community - we get the phrase "gone to the dogs." I recall people discussing various places I have visited over the years as having "gone to the dogs," meaning that the location was no longer a pleasant place to be. (Note: my dogs are treated in such a manner that, any room in my house that has gone to the dogs is one in which there are plenty of treats, comfortable spots to rest, and a plethora of toys!) This term, unlike most I discuss, has its origins in China. Thousands of years ago it was illegal to allow dogs within the limits of the village. Also forbidden was disposing one's refuse inside the town. Trash and dogs were removed from within the city walls and the former was left in a location away from the city where the latter (the dogs) would quickly congregate to dine on what the people did not wish to keep. When criminals were found undesirable, they, too, were banished to the city's exterior and, like the trash, were said to have "gone to the dogs" (I guess that's better than beheading but similar to "facing the music") (Mordock & Korach, p. 46).

Last month we looked at the origin of the word "ordeal." It was discussed that it was a test to determine a man's (or woman's, perhaps) innocence because God would never allow a righteous person to suffer from the test. Two tests were mentioned and both of these have given rise to phrases that we still use: "Being in hot water" and "hauled (or raked) over the coals." The former implies a consistency of the situation, often after having done something wrong ("The treasurer of the society found herself in hot water when the audit uncovered her embezzlement"). The latter is more a description of what happens when the consequence is doled out ("The Board of Directors raked her over the coals for her actions"). Perhaps, if this was in China, the guilty party would then "go to the dogs," but more likely, survival was questionable. The person immersed in boiling water was likely to be scalded to death (a sure sign of guilt) and the one who was literally dragged over live coals or made to walk over them would no doubt suffer injuries so severe as to alter behavior and perhaps suffer death (Mordock & Korach, pp. 48-49).

It seems that punishments in various cultures went "from pillar to post," a phrase we use to describe aimless wandering (possibly literal, possibly figurative). Its origin: a punishment exacted by our Puritan ancestors (and you thought that when they made it over here those horrible tortures would be things of the past). An offender (and so many things were deemed offensive, be it skipping church or skipping down the street) would be made a public spectacle by being locked in the stocks - the pillory - in the town square where he or she would be positioned in a very uncomfortable posture in order to exact from him or her an acknowledgement of the wrongdoing. The stubborn ones who refused to admit the offense would then be taken from the pillory to a post where they would be tied and whipped, usually producing a confession. In some cases the offender would remain unresponsive and the process would be repeated ("from pillar to post" and back again). In the worst cases, the incorrigible citizen would be banished from the community (to the dogs?) (Castle, p. 189; Mordock & Korach, pp. 57-58).

As we do our family history research, there are times we feel as if we are going from pillar to post, getting nowhere. But we are egged on by the desire to know who our ancestors were. If we are the family historian, the encouragement may be the expectations of our relatives and we don't want to face the music if we fail to locate great-great-grandpa. That concern of being in hot water at the family reunion, and being raked over the coals for failing the clan causes us to lean over backwards for the sake of the family. True, we aren't likely to face capital punishment for not digging up all that can be found on the forebears, but we might feel as if people might think the family had gone to the dogs if we can't come up with the best and most reliable information possible.


Castle. Why do we Say it? The Stories behind the Words, Expressions and Cliches we Use. Seacaucus, NJ: Book Sales, Inc., 1985.

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.

Morris, William, & Mary Morris. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

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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