Saturday, May 19, 2001

Traces of the past

ENGLISH is the mother tongue of a nation which was mainly sea-faring in the past. This has left its mark on the language in the shape of dozens of common English idioms which took birth during the sailing days. The frightening experience of the ship's keel scraping the sea bed in shallow water gave the expression 'touch and go', knowing enough about the rigging of a sailing ship brought the phrase 'to know the ropes' and 'taking the wind from the sails'; all sailing-related expressions. ‘Between the devil and the deep sea,’ another such expression, could have had two possible origins. It could be connected with the pirate custom of 'walking the plank', for a spiked tool was also known as a devil and a captive walking the plank would have had the deep sea before him and a pirate behind, prodding him with the devil. The devil was also the seam in the side of a sailing ship which had to be coated with tar regularly. To do this, a sailor would be lowered by a rope from the deck, a dangerous position, suspended between the devil and the deep blue sea. Whatever the actual origin, the metaphorical meaning is clear: caught between two equally dangerous fates.

April 28, 2001
Lost origins
April 14, 2001
Words and society
March 31, 2001
Origin of expressions
March 17, 2001
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

Another major influence on the language was the King James’ Bible of 1611 which brought many metaphorical expressions for speakers. ‘Forbidden fruit’, ‘a thorn in the flesh’ and the ‘way of all flesh’ are some of the obvious ones. ‘Feet of clay’ is an expression from the Book of Daniel in the same Bible, a phrase which has a story behind it. King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream which is interpreted by Daniel. The king had dreamt of a huge statue with a golden head, silver arms and chest, brass midriff and thighs, iron legs, feet partly of iron and partly of clay. Daniel explained to the king that just as iron and clay don't mix, so some future kingdom descending from Nebuchadnezzar's will be divided and just as clay is easily broken, the kingdom too will crumble. Today, the simpler idea of a small weakness relative to the strong whole prevails.

Under British law, disinheritance was illegal, some token bequest had to be made to the eldest child. If that were omitted, it was thought that the disinherited son could invalidate the will by alleging the father's unsoundness of mind. So, the legacy of a shilling was felt to be large enough to make the will legal and small enough to be derisory. Hence the expression ‘cut off without a shilling’ or, more precisely, ‘cut off with a shilling’.


Etymology or the study of word origins often helps to clarify certain misconceptions. For example,it is thought that chess or shatranj as a game originated in Persia. But on tracing the roots of the word shatranj it emerged that the game was born in India during Lord Budhha's time. At that time, it was played as chaturang, that is the four divisions of the army — infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants. When chess reached Iran, it came to be called chatrang and, later on, shatrang. On reaching Arabia, the word became shatranj.

— Deepti

This feature was published on May 12, 2001