|Saturday, December 23, 2000||
MANY expressions begin life as a part of a special register, the register of navy, for instance. After some time, these reach other areas as well and become a part of the language as a whole, not remaining restricted to a group of language users. There are many such expressions which come from naval life.
Showing your true
colours is one such instance. During the early days of warships, ships
often carried on board flags from many countries in order to elude or
deceive the enemy. The rules of civilised warfare called for all ships
to hoist their national ensigns before firing a single shot. A person
who shows ‘his or her true colours’ acts like a warship which
hails another ship while flying one flag, but on getting within firing
range, hoists its own real flag. One ‘square meal’ may be a
problem at times, but never as much of a problem as it was for the
sailor of the eighteenth century. On British warships those days, a
sailor’s breakfast and lunch were sparse meals, just bread and a
beverage. The third meal of the day was a substantial one, including
meat. Since it was large in volume, it required a tray to carry it on.
The tray being square, a square meal became a substantial meal.
If a business is ‘in the doldrums’, it means it is floundering. If a person is in the doldrums, he or she is depressed. This expression also harks back to the days of rugged navigation. The seas around the equator are known for unstable trade winds. In the days of primitive sailing, often a ship would be forced to a standstill by the doldrums around the equator. From the naval to everyday life, the doldrums had a short distance to travel.
Many idioms in Hindi were a part of the register of a particular profession but came to be used by all speakers. Some common examples are Kolhu ka bail (from the oil-press), a drudge; halla bolna (from the military), to attack; and maidan maarna (from the battlefield), to win.