Saturday, March 24, 2001

Origin of expressions

‘BLOW hot, blow cold’ has a fairy-tale beginning. According to a tale in Aesop’s Fables, on a very cold day, a satyr once came across a man who was blowing on his fingers to keep them warm. Taking pity on him, the satyr took him home and offered him a bowl of hot soup. Since the soup was very hot, the man started blowing on it to cool it. Observing him doing this, the satyr threw him out of his house because he wanted nothing to do with a man who blew hot and cold in the same breath! So, the next time, a friend vacillates between enthusiasm and apathy, you need not feel too exasperated, think of the poor satyr!

Fighting out a conflict ‘to the bitter end’ takes on a more graphic sense when one knows its origin. ‘Bitter end’ comes from the nautical bitt, a bollard on the deck of a ship onto which cables and ropes are wound. The end of the cable is secured to the bollard, which then becomes the last part or ‘bitter’ end of the cable.

Varied origins
March 3, 2001
Words around the house
February 17, 2001
Words around the house
February 3, 2001
Medical terms
January 20, 2001
Painting the town red
January 6, 2001
Expressions from seas
December 23, 2000
Time capsule of words
December 16, 2000
New words
December 2, 2000
Words from myths
November 11, 2000
The Olympics
October 14, 2000
More metaphors
September 30, 2000
Metaphorical colour
September 16, 2000
Broader vistas
September 2, 2000
August 19, 2000
August 5, 2000
Partial twins
July 22, 2000

Often when they reach the bitter end, informers ‘spill the beans’; physically worn out, they inadvertently divulge information. The bean was not an ordinary seed when this expression came into being. In ancient Greece, secret ballots were held for adding members to certain clubs. These secret ballots were held through the use of white and brown beans. A white bean meant a ‘yes’ vote and a brown bean stood for a ‘no’ vote. These beans were counted after the jar was knocked over to ‘spill the beans’ so that the fate of the applicants could be decided. There is another custom connected with this expression. In Turkey, gypsy fortune-tellers had no crystal balls or tea-leaves. Instead, they spilt beans out of a cup and read the pattern they formed for predicting people’s fortunes. Spilled beans came to stand for facts out in the open.

Often, a name or a face ‘rings a bell’ but one can’t place the person with clarity. In the earlier times, a bell did actually serve as a reminder to people. This was before the days of accurate watches. Church bells were rung to signal the start of events, be it the beginning of a church session, a celebration or even the starting of a school day. Since church bells are large, loud and clear and can be heard distinctively over great distances, they served the purpose of a reminding signal very often. Later, when a clock tower was installed in every town square, the clock bell rang every hour to remind people of the time.


Persian was the language of the court, state and society for many centuries. Idiomatic usage is one of the elements of this language which make it a sweet and flowery language. Naturally enough, when beautiful expressions were required, the cultured classes began to depend upon Persian idioms. By and by, Hindi ‘borrowed’ many Persian idioms, translating them into its words; yet, the metaphorical sense, phraseology and literal signification remained close to the Persian idioms. Another result of this ‘borrowing’ was the entry of many Persian words into the vocabulary of Hindi; words like magaz, pahlu, dimag, kissa, khayal, zabaan and palak.

— Deepti

This feature was published on March 17, 2001