|Saturday, May 19, 2001||
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.
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.