Monday, August 26, 2013

Sleeping dogs and blackbirds

I know someone who uses the phrase "Let sleeping dogs lie and blackbirds fly."  On one hand, it's a funny phrase, but on the other hand, the first time I heard it I knew exactly what it meant...  You should allow people/animals/things to do what they want, and what they would naturally do.  If you try to make sleeping dogs wake up, or you try to prevent blackbirds from flying... well, they're going to object and get upset, and you may find yourself with a disturbance on your hands.

But as I sat here sipping my tea, I started wondering about the origins of some of these phrases that we use all the time... and I started exploring.  To my surprise, there is a lot of disagreement about the where and when and why of some of these sayings.

The phrase - to butter someone up - seemed pretty straightforward, to me...  just as you might slather butter on a piece of bread to make it tastier, so you would cover a person with flattery and praise, to make them friendlier.  And, indeed, that was one of the possible explanations.  But the more amusing explanation was the reference to an ancient Indian custom of throwing butter at statutes of the gods, to seek favor!(apparently, the gods of ancient India liked having butter thrown at them - go figure!)

I like the background of the phrase 'more than you can shake a stick at'.  

Most sources agree that this comes from when farmers would control their sheep by shaking a staff at them to show the sheep where to go.  If you had more sheep than you could control with your staff -- you had more than you could shake a staff (stick) at.

The origin of 'the whole 9 yards' is widely in dispute.  There's no question that it means 'everything'... but the theories of the source vary widely.  Some say that the phrase comes from the fact that World War II fighter pilots received a 9 yard chain of ammunition for each mission...while others point out that 9 yards is the contents of a standard concrete mixer, and still others hold that this is the length of fabric used in making a Scottish Kilt.  There are even those who argue that the phrase was originally 'the whole 6 yards', and the amount is irrelevant -- any random amount would work.  Me - I think I'll stick with 9.  I like 9.

But perhaps my favorite little bit is the history behind 'eating humble pie'.  You see, back in the Middle Ages, the lord of the manor would have a feast after a successful hunting expedition.  As lord, he would receive the finest cuts of meat.  The other nobles of his house would receive 'good stuff', although not the finest.. and so on.  By the time you got down to those of the lowest standing, all that was left were the entrails and innards.  These entrails and innards were baked in pies, so if you were eating that pie, you were of a humble status.
But wait - it gets better.  You see, those entrails and innards were known as umbles... so initially, it was umble pie, but then with everything that the pie implied, it became humble pie!

Well I've finished my tea and have errands to run, but thought you'd enjoy these little tidbits.  Wait - what's that you say?  What about the origins of "Let sleeping dogs lie and blackbirds fly"?   Funny thing about that... turns out there's no such saying.  The first part - let sleeping dogs lie - just came from a common warning to leave the dog alone... and that's pretty boring.  But the whole phrase ---  as familiar as it sounded to me --- was apparently made up by the person I heard it from.  Who knows.... maybe it will catch on.

No comments:

Post a Comment