I Say! I Say! I Say! WHERE OUR FAVOURITE PHRASES COME FROM
Byline: RACHAEL BLETCHLY firstname.lastname@example.org
DO you get down in the dumps if you can't cut the mustard when it comes to explaining some of our quirkiest expressions?
Make no bones about it, you might not have a cat in hell's chance of understanding some of the weirdest "idioms" of the English language.
But help is at hand. A new book, As Right As Rain, will help you get to grips with the true meanings and origins of our popular expressions. So let's cut to the chase...
TO HAVE AN AXE TO GRIND
This comes from a story attributed to US politician Benjamin Franklin (1706-90). He told a cautionary tale of a man who asks the local blacksmith to sharpen his axe particularly thoroughly and is then tricked into doing the heavy work of turning the grindstone himself.
The story became so well known that 19th century writer Charles Miner wrote, with a nod to Franklin: "When I see a merchant over-polite to his customers, thinks I... that man has an axe to grind."
TO GO BERSERK
The Berserkers were wild Norse warriors of great strength and courage who fought with a frenzied fury known as "the Berserker rage".
The word may derive from "bare sark", meaning that the hardy Northern warrior fought in his "bare shirt". In the 19th century writers would liken wild behaviour to that of the Berserkers, then in 1867 English novelist Henry Kingsley made it a more general metaphor.
In Silcote of Silcotes he wrote: "With her kindly uncontrollable vivacity, in the brisk winter air she became more 'berserk' as she went on."
It caught on in the US in the 40s after the Chicago Tribune kindly explained the word berserk had been added "to the slang of the young and untutored" to mean "crackpot behaviour".
TO THE BITTER END
This probably derived from two of the most prolific sources of idioms - seafaring and the Bible.
Aboard a ship, the posts set firmly into the deck around which cables are coiled are called the bitts - so to unravel something to the bitts' end meant to the very end.
Completely unconnected to this, in the biblical book of Proverbs, there is a stark warning against adultery: "For the lips of a strange woman drop as a honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil, but her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death, her steps take hold on hell."
It's an odd expression because in the Brownies you don't get points - you get badges. The phrase seems to have originated in the US where a brownie is a type of chocolate cake.
But there's a third meaning of brownie - a benevolent elf or pixie.
In a 1951 article by Marvin Miles in the Los Angeles Times he explained that brownie points are a way for a husband to assess the extent to which he is in his wife's bad books.
Not so much a cheese as a "chiz", from a Persian or Hindustani word for "thing". The expression "the real chiz", meaning the real deal or something good, was common among English speakers in India in the days of the Raj and in due course drifted back to Britain with them.
At the same time, there was an expression "that's the Stilton", meaning the same thing. …