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Where do odd idioms like 'in a nutshell' and 'by the skin of your teeth' come from?

6 popular idioms explained

Let’s have a look at some of the curious idioms found in the English language. The explanations are often stranger than you might imagine!

Where does the expression ‘by the skin of my teeth’ come from?

After Shakespeare, a prolific coiner of new words, the King James translation of the Bible has been the biggest source of phrases in English. ‘By the skin of one’s teeth’ is one of them. Meaning ‘narrowly’ or ‘barely’, and referring usually to a narrow escape from disaster, the phrase comes from the Book of Job, in which Job is subjected to horrible trials by Satan, to be relieved finally by God. The precise phrase Job uses is slightly different:

‘My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth’ (19:20).

Exactly what ‘the skin of one’s teeth’ might be is not entirely clear, and there have been many theories put forward. The most plausible explanation is that it refers to the thin porcelain exterior of the tooth (rather than the gums). In other words, Job escaped with his teeth, but just barely. Job is comparing the narrow margin of his escape with the shallow ‘skin’ or porcelain of a tooth: the equivalent, in fact, of a ‘hair’s breadth’.

Why do good things ‘cut the mustard’?

The word mustard has been used to mean something excellent or superlative for almost a hundred years—the phrase ‘keen as mustard’ draws on the same idea of added piquancy and zest. ‘Hot stuff’, in other words.

In America, to say something was ‘the proper mustard’ in the early twentieth century meant it was the genuine article, and ‘cutting the mustard’ became a popular idiom to describe something that was up to scratch and more.

Like so many of our most intriguing phrases, the precise origin of ‘cutting’ the mustard has been lost over time, but for something that began as American slang the phrase now seems as quintessentially British as ‘stiff upper lip’ (also, surprisingly, American in origin).

Does the word ‘bankrupt’ come from a literal breaking of a bank?

Not exactly, although the theory is on the right lines. In the sixteenth century, moneylenders or traders used to conduct their business on benches outdoors. The usual Italian word for such benches was banca—hence today’s ‘bank’. A banca rotta was a ‘broken bench’.

In his dictionary of 1755, Samuel Johnson noted the common legend that when a money-dealer himself became insolvent, his table was duly broken as a sign to others. Whether or not this was true, banca rotta, which morphed into ‘bankrupt’ in English, was definitely used figuratively to mean someone who had gone out of business—and indeed the modern sense of being ‘broke’ comes from that very same origin too.

I’ve always been curious about ‘level pegging’. Where does it come from?

This probably entered the sporting lexicon from the card game of cribbage via the game of darts. When darts first began to be played in public houses over a century ago, the absence of the digital counter you’d find today meant players used the pegs in an old cribbage board instead (cribbage is the card game where points are scored on a 61-holed board with pegs). When the scores were equal, then the pegs were level; hence the idiom ‘level pegging’.

The phrase ‘chalking up’ also comes from keeping score, this time on a chalkboard or simply with a stick of chalk on an available surface. The idiom is surprisingly old: the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for it is from one of the Parnassus Plays, a series of entertainments performed at St John’s College, Cambridge, between 1597 and 1603:

‘All my debts stande chaukt upon the poste for liquor’.

Finally, ‘tallying’ and ‘keeping tally’, which can also be traced back as far as the fifteenth century, originated in the notching of a stick (the Latin verb talliare means ‘to cut’) as a way of entering a number.

Why are French, Spanish, and Italian known as the Romance languages?

It is often assumed that these Latin languages acquired the attribute Romance because of their beautiful romantic sounds. This theory is true, in a roundabout way: it all comes down to the history of that word ‘romantic’. Historically, ‘romance’ means ‘of Rome’. As the Roman Empire disintegrated, the Latin word romanticus (‘of Rome’) came to be associated with the languages that developed from the Latin of ancient Rome.

By the time romanticus reached Old French, as romanz, it was being widely used to refer to stories in the local language, as opposed to latinus. Since many of these tales told of brave knights and their chivalrous rescues of fair maidens, resulting inevitably in love, the words ‘romance’ and ‘romantic’ took on the meanings they have today

Where does the phrase ‘in a nutshell’ come from?

This idiom, used when we want to sum something up in a concise way, goes back over four hundred years to the late sixteenth century—Shakespeare’s Hamlet uses it to mean something compact when he says, ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams’.

The phrase originates in an ancient story, described by the Roman scholar Pliny in AD 77, that the great philosopher Cicero witnessed a copy of Homer’s epic poem the Iliad written on a piece of parchment that was quite small enough to fit into the shell of a walnut.

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent.

In the book What Made the Crocodile Cry?, Susie Dent draws on her popular television segment on the curiosities of English to tackle fascinating puzzles.

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