When in Rome… read some place name idioms
No disrespect intended to the people of Coventry, but, idiomatically at least, it is not a very pleasant place to be sent. Unsurprisingly, given that Coventry is a city in England, to send someone to Coventry is a chiefly British expression, meaning to ‘refuse to associate with or speak to someone’. Speaking from my own experience, it is a phrase most commonly found in the school stories of Enid Blyton, but it dates to the early 18th century.
Its origins are uncertain, but there are two suggested theories: it has been said to stem from the extreme unpopularity of soldiers stationed in Coventry, who were cut off socially by the citizens, or because Royalist prisoners were sent there during the English Civil War, the city being staunchly Parliamentarian.
This expression relies upon the knowledge that Newcastle (a city in the north of England) has a history of being particularly productive in exporting coal; it is used to mean supplying something to a place where it is already plentiful, or thus, figuratively, to do something wholly superfluous. The equivalent in German looks to a different city: ‘Eulen nach Athen tragen’, translating as ‘carry owls to Athens’.
The same idea is behind the expression selling ice to Eskimos and Jay-Z’s claim that he can ‘sell water to a well’ in the song ‘U don’t know’; in these cases, being able to market the superfluous item is an indication of the seller’s skill.
The Rubicon is a point of no return, commonly found in the expression to cross the Rubicon. Appreciators of Italian topography may know that it is a stream in the North-East of that country. It once marked the boundary between Italy and Cisalpine Gaul, and gained its current idiomatic sense in relation to an event in 49 BC. Julius Caesar led his army across it, breaking a law which forbade a general to lead an army out of his province. By crossing the Rubicon, he had crossed a point of no return – that is, he had committed himself to a war against the Senate and Pompey.
A few decades later, the road to Damascus came to prominence. Now ‘used in reference to an important moment of insight, typically one that leads to a dramatic transformation of attitude or belief’, the idiom was not in common parlance until the 19th century, but it refers to an incident from the 1st century. The Book of Acts, in the New Testament, gives the account of St Paul (then named Saul) having a dramatic conversion to Christianity while on the road leading to Damascus, Syria.
Many of us have had our own (very minor) road to Damascus moment when we discovered that Timbuktu (also spelled Timbuctoo) was a real place – specifically a town in northern Mali. It is commonly found in the English language as a reference to a remote or extremely distant place (e.g. ‘You could hear it from here to Timbuktu’), a use which dates back to at least the mid-19th century. In American English, this is often joined with another metonymic place: from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo. The Kalamazoo in question is a city in the US state of Michigan.
Although it’s not clear where When in Rome, do as the Romans do originated (an expression suggesting that one should adopt the customs or behaviour of those around you when abroad or in an unfamiliar environment), there is an earlier version you may not have heard: when at Rome, do after the doom. This sounds pretty morbid, but it’s actually using a now-obsolete sense of doom, ‘a statue, law, enactment’, which predates the current sense of a fate by several centuries.
Speaking of Rome, it appears in its fair share of idioms. You may know that Rome wasn’t built in a day (a proverb suggesting that a complex task should not be rushed) and that all roads lead to Rome (i.e. ‘there are many different ways of reaching the same goal or conclusion’.) The latter may be an exaggeration, but the former is indisputable.
You are less likely to be familiar with a couple of other Rome-based proverbs (neither of which require much burrowing for an explanation). Do not sit in Rome and strive with the Pope is a chiefly-Scottish idiom meaning ‘do not attempt to criticize or oppose a powerful person in his or her own territory’, such as the Pope’s in Rome, synonymous with the Catholic Church. More amusing is the sound advice not ‘to go to Rome with a mortar on one’s head’, or ‘hop to Rome’, and similarly ludicrous modes of travel, which are taken as the type of a hopelessly difficult and/or pointless task.
Get the hell out of Dodge
Thanks to a colourful history that includes figures like the lawman Wyatt Earp, Dodge City, Kansas has acquired an almost mythical reputation as a dangerous place to be. Although Dodge City provides the setting for scores of Western radio dramas, films, and television shows, the locale is probably best known as the setting of the long-running radio drama and television show Gunsmoke, in which Marshal Matt Dillon (played by James Arness on the television show) tries to keep order in a town overrun by cattle rustlers, gunslingers, and other criminals. Although Dillon never commanded a villain to specifically ‘get the hell out of Dodge’, he often told them simply to ‘get out of Dodge’. The full expression quickly came to refer to leaving any place, especially a dangerous one.
[Superlative] this side of the Mississippi
While the phrase ‘this side of’ has been used for centuries – particularly in phrases such as this side of death – geographical references are somewhat more recent. In American English, it is common to hear a superlative (‘the best waffles’, for instance) alongside the phrase ‘this side of the Mississippi’, likely because the Mississippi River provides a neat way to divide the US into east and west. The expression may also be related to the westward expansion of the country during the 19th century.
And a word you might not have known was related to a place…
Serendipity commonly tops lists of British people’s favourite English words, and has the delightful definition ‘the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way’. The development of this word is, indeed, rather happy; it was coined by the Gothic novelist and politician Horace Walpole in 1754, with reference to the 16th-century Italian fairy-tale ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’, in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.
So, where does the place name come into the equation? You may not be aware that Serendip is a former name of Sri Lanka, a borrowing of Sarandīb, the Arabic name for the island, ultimately going back to Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpa: ‘the island of Siṃhala’ (which also underlies the former English name Ceylon and the name of the Sinhala language). So you’ve probably been serendipitously using a place-based term without even realizing it.