Saturday, April 1, 2000

Expressions with a past

MEDDLERS often get chided with the words ‘stick to your last’ or, "a cobbler should stick to his last". A Greek artist called Apelles, who lived in the time of Alexander the Great, once made mistake in his drawing of a shoe. A shoemaker drew attention to this error. The artist bowed to the shoemaker’s expertise and made amends. But the shoemaker got bold enough to suggest changes in the legs of the subject in the painting. This Apelles could not digest. So he rebuked the cobbler. ‘Stick to your last’, the last being the cobbler’s block or artificial foot used for making or repairing shoes. A highly obscure word, ultracrepidarian, going beyond one’s own ability or area, comes from this episode as well. This word is derived from the Latin ultra crepidam, meaning ‘beyond the cobbler’s last’.

During exam-time students are often on tenterhooks, that is, tense, nervous, waiting for the exam to resolve their suspense. Imagine a piece of cloth stretched tight over a frame and the mental state of these poor souls is clear. After rinsing or dyeing new cloth, it would be stretched over a framework called a tenter with a series of hooked nails called tenterhooks. Tenter comes from the Latin tendere or to stretch.

  When Julius Caesar was crossing the Rubicon river in northern Italy he was, in effect invading Italy proper and committing himself to war against Pompeii. This happened in the year 49 B.C. and Caesar announced — "Jacta alea est " — or the die is cast. Once a die or dice is thrown, the result is irrevocable and must be accepted. This incident also created the expression ‘to cross the Rubicon’, that is, taking an irrevocable step or decision.

Winning a Nobel Peace Prize is considered a feather in one’s cap these days. The origin of the phrase has nothing to do with peace, at all. In many cultures, a feather is still regarded as badge of honour for the hunter or warrior. Originally, the hunter who killed a bird would mark his achievement by searing a feather plucked from it; the feather in a soldier’s cap after killing an enemy was just a step away. The feathered head-dress of the American Indian is the best known example of the custom. The expansion of the expression to mean any great achievement becomes clear through this background, but in terms of the Nobel Peace Prize it does look like a contradiction in terms!


Sanskrit and Hindi share a relationship that resembles the one between Latin and English. Just as Latin contains very few words that can be used unmodified in the everyday vocabulary of English, Sanskrit too contains more of religious and philosophical terms. For many words dealing with mundane, ordinary activities, Hindi either modifies the usage of the word or takes a word from some other language.

— Deepti