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WHAT’S ALL THAT ABOUT Explanations to proverbs and special words in English

A Achilles’ heel This expression comes from the Greek mythology. The ancient Greek hero Achilleus, who was the main person in the Iliad of Homer, was by his mother Thetis dipped in the river Styx. In this way be became invulnerable. When the mother dipped him she held him by his heels – meaning that they did not become wet. Therefore, they continued to be vulnerable. When Achilleus later was fighting near Troya he was hit by the arrows of Paris – and died. When the tendon linking the peroneus with the top of the heel bone is called the Achilles tendon it has its origin in the Iliad. Today you use the expression Achilles heel you refer to somebody’s weak point, where he can be hit – in the figurative sense. So where is your Achilles heel??

Armed ? Two famous persons were dancing with each other. Suddenly she says to him: Did you bring your gun – or are you just happy to see me? Who was that?

As you perhaps already know, it was the remark of the actor Mae West (1893-1980) to the humourist etc. W.C.Fields (1880-1946) when they once were dancing together. The remark has been used later at several occasions in films. It was also used in Mae West’s last film Sextette in 1978. And some people claim that chancellor Angela Merkel used it when she some time ago met the Dutch prime minister! B

Bed of roses This expression comes from the time of the decay of the Roman empire around the 3rd and 4th century AC. People did a lot of decadent things in that period. One of them was to have roses in masses all over the place – to live with lots of roses everywhere and at all times. The beds were ofter filled with leaves of roses. The floors were covered with roses. This habit was sometime continued in the Medieval Ages at special occasions. So the expression a bed of roses still today means that you have a good life. A life without problems.

Better late than never This expression was first used by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) in one of his famous Canterbury Tales (in 1386). The meaning of the expression was then and still is today that after all it is positive that something happens or is been done, even if it is done later than expected or agreed. It is a positive saying, but with a stint of sarcasm. And it has a hidden agenda saying: don’t do like that again!

Bird – the early bird catches the worm This expression is first recorded in John Ray’s A Collection of English Proverbs 1670. It is at the time quoted like that: The early bird catcheth the worm. It means – then and now – that success comes to those, who prepare well and put an effort.

Bird Phoenix

This is a legendary animal, which is described by the ancient Greek poets. The feathers of the bird were put to flames by the sun, and it burns in its nest. But from the ashes a new Bird Phoenix arises. That’s where the expression to arise like the bird Phoenix comes from. Another version of this legend goes as follows: The bird Phoenix is the only one of its kind in the world. It has lived for 500 years in the Arab desert. Then it collects sweetscented wood for a fire. This is ignited by the sun. And from the ashes the bird Phoenix arises again – this time in a younger and a more beautiful form. Today the expression to arise like the bird Phoenix means that something very unexpected is happening – almost out of nothing. It is positive, but close to being unreal. Almost magic.

Black sheep In the old days a legend said that it would bring bad luck to have one or more black sheep in the flock. The reason was that you were paid less for black wool than for white wool. Today you talk about the family’s black sheep, when you think of a member of the family, who differs from the rest of the family in a negative way. It might be in behavior or in intelligence. In other words: it isn’t meant positively, when somebody is described as a black sheep.

Blue blood This saying has its origin from Castillia in Spain. The local Castillians had a more light skin than the immigrants, who were were mostly moors and jews. Due to their light skin you could more easily see the veins through the skin. The expression locally was and is: sangre azul, which means blue blood. Many Castillians at the time – at least the more known ones – were from the nobility. That is why the expression blue blood later has got the meaning it has today: people of royal or noble families.

Blood is thicker than water This is a very old expression in many languages. Already in 1180 you see it in some German texts. And later the Danish story collector Peder Syv (1631-1702) is using it. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) makes it well known in his work Guy Mannering. And later the German emperor Wilhelm II (1859-1941) uses it frequently in his speeches.

The meaning of the expression has always been and still is that family bonds are closer than those of outsiders. It is in a way strange that emperor Wilhelm used it so often. He was the grand child of Queen Victoria. And still he was a main initiator of World War I between Germany and Britain (and many more).


Canossa – to go to Canossa The background is the German emperor Heinrich IV’s fight with pope Gregor 7. Heinrich governed in the years 1056-1106. When the emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1076 fired the pope it started a very serious conflict. The pope excommunicated the emperor. A year later Heinrich decided to make an end to the fight by walking barefooted all the way to the pope’s castle in Canossa south of Parma in northern Italy. Here he had to wait for 3 days in winterly weather in the courtyard of the castle, before the pope forgived him. The expression to go to Canossa became very much known much later, when the German chancellor Bismarck started a serious fight with the Catholic church in the 1870ies. We will never go to Canossa, Bismarck stated at several occasions. But through negotiations the conflict was brought to an end. And many asked themselves afterwards, if Bismarck in reality went to Canossa to finalise the conflict. Today the term to go to Canossa means that you give totally in in a conflict. Carte blanche This term comes from French and means white card or white paper. In was used in the old days in connection with negotiations – political, economic or military negotiations. The person who was given the mandate to negotiate and to make the final agreement received a piece of white paper ( a carte blanche) only with the signature of the top boss (the king, the prime minister, the general). Then he or she could fill out the rest with the agreement made – and it was all done. Today the expression carte blanche is still used meaning full power of attorney. In the EU Commission the president receives a carte blanche letter from each member of the Commission only with their signature on. Then he alone can decide when they have to step down.

Cobbler – stick to your last

This expression goes all the way back to Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). His painter at the court was called Apelles. He was known to exhibit his works in such a way that he – without anybody noticing him – could study peoples’ reactions. One day he changed a detail on a shoe on a painting to see the reaction from visitors. A shoemaker noticed the mistake. But when he continued his criticism of the way the legs were painted Apelles could not stand listening to him anymore. He said: A shoemaken should never judge anything but shoes. Later the expression has developed into today’s saying: Coppler – stick to your last.

Today this expression means that you should never talk about things you don’t know anything about. How the world would change, if everybody followed that rule 


Dutch treat This expression comes originally from the rivalry between the English and the Dutch in the 17th century. The two nations and their people did not always talk nicely about each other. The English was of the opinion that the Dutch were always trying to avoid paying their share. They wanted to save their money. This is perhaps not totally surprising. The Calvinist religion – to which many Dutch belonged and still belong – encourages people to save as much money as possible. The more money you have when you die, the greater your chance is to get to heaven. So why take the risk and use the money during one’s lifetime ?! Nowadays the expression a Dutch treat often means, that everyone pays for himself, when you go together to a restaurant or a bar. You can also say: going Dutch. This has the same meaning. In some cases Dutch people get offended, when they hear the expression. In other cases they use it themselves to make a bit of fun.




Feathers have in history always played a very important symbolic role. The ancient Greek poet Esop (620-564 BC) talked in one of his tales about a crowe, which borrowed the feathers of a parrot to try to look better. And the soldiers in the Roman armies wore feathers on their helmets. This should sympolise that they were able to fly, just like the birds. As time went by it became a habit that the more feathers you had in yout cap the more important you were. They were a sign of your influence and rang. A few hundred years it was a normal saying in English that nobody should wear a feather, if he hadn’t killed a Turk. Again: a symbol for something good (?) you had done. Today the expression a feather in one’s cap means that you have got an honour you can be proud of.

Fifth column It comes from the Spanish civil war 1936-39. General Franco was about to attack Madrid with 4 military columns – attacking from north, east, south and west. At the same time he organized that fascist supporters inside the city were ready for fight and at the right moment go into action and attack the government forces from inside. They got the name the fifth column. Later the expression was used about German spies, who under the cover of being journalists, scientists or business people were German spions in Germany’s neighbouring countries – ready to help, if and when German troops attacked the country they were in. During the Cold War the expression the fifth column was used to describe the traitors, who for ideological reasons felt more attached to another country than to their own – and therefore were willing to give confidential information to the other country. The Soviet Union was very active in using citizens of other countries in this role.

Flamenco It is well known that flamenco is a lively Spanish song with guitar music, a forceful dance and loud clapping with the hands. It is in particular known in Andalusia in the south of Spain. Originally it was the culture of poor people. It goes back to the 16th century and comes from gipsy music and somewhat also from the Moorish culture, also after the Moors were thrown out of Europe by 1492. Flamenco is mentioned for the first time in 1774. And when the first Flamenco Café opened in Andalusia in 1842 it was no success from the beginning.

Where does the word flamenco then come from? Flamenco – also today – in Spanish means Flemish. How come? Because people in Spain thought in the 16th century that the gypsies came from Flanders (including present day Belgium). It was under the Spanish king from 1556-1713. So perhaps there is some truth in it.

Flying Dutchman The origin of this expression is a legend from the 16th century. It tells about a Dutch merchant ship, which constantly sails over the oceans and never goes into any port. It is in particular seen in the seas around Cape of the Good Hope in South Africa. Seeing this ship gives other ships a warning that an accident is coming up. The legend also tells that the ship is there as God’s punishment of the Dutch captain Vanderdecken for blasphemy. The topic has often been treated in literature and other forms of art, including in Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman. Today we would rather talk about a so-called ghost ship. This is a ship which is sailing without any crew. Such ships exist. It is, though, not dangerous just to see them. It only becomes a real problem, if you run into them. And fortunately this happens very rarely.

French visit This is an old expression in many countries such as France, England, Germany and the Netherlands. It meant that somebody came for a short visit, said something nonimportant and left without saying goodbye. And it was at the time not considered to be bad manners. In France and Germany the expression English Visit was now and then used with the same meaning. Today a French visit means that you make a very brief visit – and leave very quickly again.


Gauntlet The expression to throw down the gauntlet comes from the Medieval Ages. In the tournaments of the knights a knight would throw his gauntlet in front of another knight to challenge him in a duel. Before that tradition a gauntlet (a glove) had for centuries been the symbol of a hand – which again was the symbol of a person.

Today the expression to throw down the gauntlet still means to challenge somebody. Not in a duel, but in a more peaceful way. The expression is sometimes changed into: to throw the gauntlet into the ring. This is wrong. It should be to throw the towel into the ring. This means to surrender, to give up. So this in a way is the opposite of throwing down the gauntlet.

Gentlemens’ agreement This expression comes from a number of dinner parties in 1886 in the American finance magnat J.P. Morgan’s house. Morgan lived in the years 1837-1913. During these dinners (only attended by men) a number of very important agreements were made. They were not written down in a contract and were only based on the spoken word and mutual confidence on what had been said. They were called Gentlemen’s Agreements. In Denmark (and probably also in other countries) you have another way of unwritten agreements. If you have made a deal (bought a horse or something else) the two people clash their right hands against each other. And that confirms the deal. Gordian knot This expression comes from Apollon’s Oracle in Delphi – the centre of the world in ancient Greece. The Oracle had predicted that the person who could undo a knot on the harness on a pole of a wagon in the temple of Zeus in Gordion would become the ruler of the world. Then came Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) and solved the problem by cutting the knot with his sword. And he actually became the ruler of the known world at the time. Today, the expression to untie the Gordian knot means that you solve a problem, which seems unsolvable.

Goulash barons During World War I the German troops were most of the time eating canned food, especially goulash in many forms. The soldiers called their kitchens in the field Gullasch-Kanonen! A large part of it was imported from neutral countries, including Denmark. And its quality was often very poor. And in those countries many people became very rich very quickly because of that export. Many of them were boasting with their money. So the word Goulash Barons is pretty negative. It was in many ways be compared with today’s Nouveaux Riches from Russia and China.

Great minds think alike Great minds think alike' isn't especially old as proverbs go, but the thought behind it dates from at least the early 17th century. The impressively named Dabridgcourt Belchier wrote this in Hans Beer-Pot, 1618: Though he made that verse, Those words were made before. Good wits doe jumpe. That citation uses 'jump' with a meaning long since abandoned in everyday speech, that is 'agree with; completely coincide'. Laurence Sterne repeated that usage in Tristram Shandy, 1761: Great wits jump: for the moment Dr. Slop cast his eyes upon his bag the very same thought occurred. The 'think alike' version wasn't found in print until sometime after that. The earliest example that I have found is in Carl Theodor von Unlanski's biography The woful history of the unfortunate Eudoxia, 1816: It may occur that an editor has already printed something on the identical subject great minds think alike, you know. Thomas Paine, the English-born revolutionary who became one of the founding fathers of the USA, like many today, had a different response to the idea that 'great minds think alike', that is, "No, they don't". He expressed that opinion in the 1792 political pamphlet The Rights of Man, edition 2 : I do not believe that any two men, on what are called doctrinal points, think alike who think at all. It is only those who have not thought that appear to agree. Today the expression great minds think alike normally means that “I just thought that” – when somebody is saying something. Or more negatively in the sense: Fools seldom differ!

Guests and fish The expression comes from ancient Greece. The first time it has been written down was by the Roman comedy author Plautus ( about 200 BC). He was often rewriting Greek comedies. In his book “The Boasting Soldier” he has this sentence: No friend is so welcome that he won’t be a nuisance after 3 days in a friend’s house. And to combine this

with the smell of half-rotten fish makes the point come clearer through. Everybody knows how that smells ď Œ Today the expression still means that you should always consider not to stay too long, when you make a visit.


Hand on your heart This has since ancient times been a symbol of honesty. In the Middle Ages priests and women put their hand at their heart when taking the oath. But already in the very old times people in the north (cimbrians, Vikings, etc.) put their right hand on the heart when meeting other people to show that they did not carry a weapon in that hand – that they were peaceful. This has later been replaced by holding out one’s right hand when saying hello. This proves that you do not carry arms in that hand. The Americans put their right hand on the heart when the national anthem is played. This is meant to show loyalty to the country.

Hocus pocus This expression has its origin in the bible: it is a distortion of the words from the communion: hoc est corpus - Latin for: this is my body. It was many years ago in particular used as a swear-word. Later it changed to be used in relation to magics. The first time this was seen was in an English handbook on magics from 1634. It carried the title: Hocus pocus junior. Today the expression hocus pocus is used when you do or show something almost like a magician. You make things happen almost out of nothing! Like many people think about the origins of the expression in Latin.

Holy flame This is the name of the permanent fire in the temples in the ancient times. It is known from many religions. To the ancient Greeks fire was sacred. They believed it had been stolen from the gods by Prometheus. In the Christian religion it is mentioned in the Law of Moses, where God asks Moses to ensure that the flame on the alter will burn permanently. From there comes the tradition with a burning lamp in Jewish synagogues. It is also known in the Catholic church.

When you see a permanent flame on monuments for killed soldiers in wars, f.ex. on the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, is comes from the same tradition. The Olympic flame has the same origin. Some time in advance of Olympic games a special ceremony is organized at the Mount Olympus in Greece. The flame is ignited by the beams of the sun, and a torch with the flame is transported over long distances, often by a runner, to the place, where the games take place. At the end of the games the flame is extinguished again.

Honeymoon The old English expression hony moone from the 16th century was the name for the very first days in the marriage of newly weds. That was where they started their new life and probably also laid the ground for a larger family. In the early 19th century it became a habit for new couples (in the upper classes) in England that they went on a trip immediately after the wedding. They were often accompanied by family and friends on the trip. They either went to see family, who had not been able to come to the wedding. Or to other places. The French Riviera and Italy ( Rome, Verona and Venice) were the most popular places. In France the same habit started in the 1820’es (“English style voyages”). And in the socalled Belle Epoque ( 1871-1914) the honeymoon trips were in a way the start of mass tourism. In Denmark honeymoon is called hvedebrødsdage (white bread days). Why? Because normally people in the old days only had rye bread to eat. In the days after the wedding they had the more expensive wheat breat or white bread for a few days.

Horse trading The original word horse-trading came from the big horse markets in the Medieval ages. In other countries the same expression is referring to cows (Germany) or bullocks (Denmark). Why? Because there were bigger markets in those countries for cows and bullocks than for horses. In all these markets the trading often took the form of farmers (or more often professional animal traders) discussed – often in a very lively way – the price and at the end made the deal by slamming their right hands together. This was the deal. Nowadays the expression horse trading is in particular used about political negotiations. It refers to talks where each part often has to reduce its ideological or other demands in order to get a political deal. Among voters political horse trading is ofter seen as negative. But in reality it is a necessary and important part of politics in order to get results at the end. I



Köpenick event This expression comes from an event in 1906. A shoemaker in Berlin, Wilhelm Voigt (1849-1922) – former prisoner and a poor guy to look at – took in the German town of Köpenick outside Berlin the uniform of a military officer and behaved like a captain in the imperial guard. He commanded a group of soldiers to follow him to the City Hall, where they arrested the authorities and took the city’s money box with 4000 Mark. After that he disappeared. But he was caught quite quickly afterwards. After two years he was pardoned by emperor Wilhelm and was freed from prison. He became a popular hero in Germany. Now he wrote a book about the event. It was later also made into a film. The event was used by Voigt and many others to make the Prussian authorities look like fools with their obedience to military uniforms. When the expression a Köpenick event or affair is used now and then today it means that somebody makes fun of the authorities.



Money doesn’t smell This expression comes from an event during the reign of the Roman emperor Vespasian (9-79 AC). He had decided to introduce a special tax on public toilets. His son Titus was strongly against it. Then Vespasian took a coin and put it under the nose of his son and asked, if it smelled. When Titus replied NO the emperor said: And it is actually coming from the toilets. After Vespasian the public toilets in Paris are actually often called Les Vespasiennes. Today the expression money does not smell means that it is of no importance, where money comes from. Also if it comes from activities, which are more or less illegal. Money is money is another expression. In other words: the expression money does not smell is not a very positive one.

Murphy’s law It comes from England. We don’t know exactly, who this Murphy was. But it is certain that it refers to an Irishman (Murphy is a typical Irish name). This Irishman was electrician. And the English had no confidence in his technical skills. Things always went wrong, when he tried to do something. In this way the expression Murphy’s Law came to mean, that if anything can go wrong it will go wrong. This is not nice or just to the Irish. But history and traditions are not always nice and just 

Muse This is a word from Greek mythology. They were the inspiration for the Gods for innovations and discoveries in literature, science and arts. They were the source of knowledge. There were 9 muses. They were all daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Each of them looked after a special field: Clio:





poetry of love






epic poetry





Nowadays, you still see the connection between some of these names and a number of words linked to the 9 special fields. And today you also use the expression: a man’s muses. This means that there are women behind him to inspire and encourage him.



Out of sight – out of mind The meaning of this phrase is that something is easily forgotten or dismissed as unimportant if it is not in our direct view. Or you easily forget people you do you see often or are not in contact with frequently. The background for the exprtession is many hundred years old. The use of 'in mind' for 'remembered' and 'out of mind' for 'forgotten' date back to the at least the 13th century. The earliest printed citation of a link with memory and the sight of something is in John Heywood's Woorkes. A dialogue conteynyng prouerbes and epigrammes, 1562, as reprinted by the Spenser Society, 1867: "Out of sight out of minde." The phrase is used as an example of the supposed comic results that early computer translation and speech recognition programmes came up with. The phrase 'out of sight, out of mind' was supposed to have been translated by a computer as 'invisible idiot', 'blind and insane' etc. This is on a par with 'computers can wreck a nice peach' (computers can recognise speech), which is also used as an example of how computers lack the general knowledge to compare with humans at speech recognition. These reports lack consistency and are too neat to be anything other than inventions. There's no evidence to support the stories but they do illustrate that although 'anyone can make a mistake, but to really foul things up you need a computer'. Even using recent (2007) programs to translate 'out of sight, out of mind' into Russian and then back to English the best they could do was 'from the sighting, from the reason'.


Paint the town red This expression comes from the US. Originally it comes from an Irish-American ballade, which says: the beacon hills were painted red. It referred to a tradition that the hills with the beacons were actually now and then painted red to signal that a big festival was about to start. There is also proof that the expression comes from the Missisippi river. The captain of an old steam ship had big difficulties in competition with the new steam ships. One day he said to his crew: Paint her red, boys! From then on his business was very good again.

In German you talk about Rot anstreichen (to paint something red). It refers to the tradition that you make a red mark in your calendar/diary for days when some festivities are expected to happen. Nowadays the expression to paint the town red is – as you know – still used. It means you are going to have a great evening out. Normally without painting anywhere.

Pandora’s box This story comes from Greek mythology. Pandora was a woman, who was rich and possessed a lot of valuable things. She was created by Hefaistos from earth and water. She was considered to be the first ancestress of all women. When she got married, she received from the gods as a present a big box with food. She was in the first instance not allowed to look into the box. But she was too curious and opened the box despite the prohibition. This meant that all sorts of pains jumped out of the box and were spread to all people in the world. In the bottom of the box only hope was left. That is why people always have hope left, when everything else has gone. Today the expression Pandora’s Box is used to describe that something unexpected may happen, if you do things with unpredictable consequences. In other words: if you open Pandora’s Box.

Panic fear In ancient Rome people were of the opinion that a sudden loud noice – panicus casus, in Latin – often was made by Pan. He was a god in the Greek mythology - the god for shepherds and for wild animals in the mountains. He had horns, legs and a tale like a goat. He moved around on grazing-grounds and in forests. When people met him they were terror-stricken. Especially when they came to wake him up he made them really frightened. It gave them a panic fear. They panicked. This is the historical, mythodological origins of the expression panic fear. Its meaning today is a sudden fear, which people can hardly control.

Parkinson’s law The British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1909-93) wrote in 1958 a book, where he presented his laws about how the public sector almost automatically grows and grows. One of the laws says: an official wants to increase the number of his subordinates, not of his competitors. Another law goes like this: the officials create work for each other. That is why the number of officials increases progressively even if the work does not

increase. It even does so if the number of tasks decreases. And a third law: the budget costs increase without obvious reasons as progressively as the number of officials.

The term Parkinson’s Law has later become a often used concept, which means that the public sector grows and grows automatically. It is not a positive concept. When somebody says that this is Parkinson’s Law he is of the opinion that things are going too far. And that something has to be done about it.

Pepper To be sent to the place where the pepper is growing is a very old expression, which originally comes from France. They had – and still have – an area in the north of South America called Guyane. It has always had a very tough and unpleasant tropical climate, where nobody wanted to go. At the same time a lot of pepper is growing in the area. The name Cheyenne pepper is very well known. During and after the French revolution from 1789 prisoners were sent to Guyane to terrible conditions. So the threat to be sent to the place where the pepper grows comes from that habit. Today the expression is used in an indirect sense. If anybody tells you that he or she wants to send you there it is probably not one of your best friends. Or at least not any longer!

Peter principle This expression tells that there is a tendency to promoting all employees beyond what their skills can manage. This naturally leads to incompetence and people being useless or worse in their jobs. The expression was in its most recent form described by the Canadian Lawrence J. Peter in 1969 (hence the name), The Peter Principle. But already in 1910 Jose Ortega e Gasset wrote that all employees ought to be degraded to the level under the one they are actually working at. This would according to him give the best work. To this description can be added – as others have done – that in such a situation (ruled by the Peter principle) staff often manages to manipulate with their incompetent superiors in such a way that they do not interfere in their work. It is often called Managing upwards. As an old hand in the EU I wonder, if this principle still lives today 

Platonic love

The Greek philosopher Platon (427-347 BC) is in one of his dialogues praising the highest form of love, which human beings can move up to from the lower, sensual love. It is the higher love, which according to Platon stimulates the ability to see the beauty of the soal and of one’s character. From this praise comes the expression Platonic love – meaning the completely non-sensual love between man and woman. Several philosophers claim that Platon has been wrongly interpreted in this way, and that he only thinks about the need for philosophical comprehension. Today the expression Platonic love is still used in the first interpretation – a non-sensual, more physical love. They live in a Platonic way, as they say. Plimsoller This name comes from a British politician Samuel Plimsoll (1824-98). He was fighting very actively against ships, which were not seaworthy (so-called “coffin ships”). They were sailing, often very much overloaded, because the owners wanted them to be wrecked. In this way they could cash in the insurance money. Plimsoll wanted to save British seamen from drowning due to these circumstances. In 1875 he succeeded to have a law about it passed in the British parliament. This law made such ships unlawful. One of the instruments which was introduced was so-called load lines on the outside of any ship, so that you could see, if the the load was heavier than permitted. They are still in use. In other words: the name a Plimsoller means a ship, which is not seaworthy. It’s a “coffin ship”. Pot This expression to keep the pot boiling has its origins in the works of the Greek sophist and collector of proverbs Zenobios (117-38). He worked for the emperor in Rome. He writes: If the pot boils the friendship will last. Much later the English poet Charles Dickens (1812-70) uses the expression to keep the pot boiling when he quotes young people, when they suddenly stof in the middle of their philosophical discussions. Then the others present said: keep the pot boiling. Today the expression is still used to say: keep going – continue. With what you are saying, doing, trying, planning, etc.

Potëmkin wings This expression comes from Russia in the 18th century. Tsarina Catherine the Great (1729-96) had a governor-general in the south of Russia called Grigorij Potëmkin. He lived in the years 1739-91. He was a dynamic officer, who was very interested in many things, including women (also the tsarina). When he in 1787 had to show Catherine around in his part of the country he contructed a range of artificial villages to give her the best possible impression. All houses looked nice and attractive from the street side.

And they were filled with people, who looked very healthy and happy. The Tsarina should get the impression that his region developed very positively under his leadership. But behind the front walls everything was like before: depressing and underdeveloped. When you today talk about Potëmkin Wings you refer to the fact that things are not always as they pretend to be at first sight. The “decorated reality” does not correspond to the real reality.



Red thread You say: A red thread goes through it! This is an expression which comes from the Royal British Navy. For centuries it had a serious problem about its ropes being stolen. And nobody could trace where it had gone. That is why they started to weave a red thread into all new ropes. This made it much easier to find the thieves and to bring the ropes back to the Navy. This method is still in use. And it has been further refined in the sense that each Navy base has its own colour of the thread. The same method was used by the Danish Navy until 1900. The expression a red thread through something means today that things are coherent. S

Sisyphonean labour The Greek poet Homer (about 8 centuries BC) tells in the Odyssee about the Greek king Sisyphos. At a certain moment he has to suffer for his many sins, including his frequent excitements. He is, therefore, asked to roll a big stone to the top of a big mountain. Just before the top the stone rolls back each time. So he has to start all over again. That is why the expression Sisyphonean Labour today means very hard and very useless work, which does not give any results.

Storm in a tea cup It is a very old Roman proverb. Cicero (106-43 BC) quoted it in this way: He started a storm in a small spoon! Later the French political philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) used the expression Une tempête dans un verre d’eau. Directly translated: A storm in a glass of water. He used it to describe political instability in the mini state San Marino. The expression was in English, of course, made to: a storm in a tea cup.

The meaning of this expression was then and also today that something which perhaps gives the impression of being important is in reality of no real importance. Strike while the iron is hot This old proverb clearly alludes to the imagery of the blacksmith or farrier at his forge. If he delays in shaping the iron when it is hot and pliable the metal soon cools and hardens and the opportunity is lost. The expression is recorded in Richard Edwards’, The excellent comedie of two the moste faithfullest freendes, Damon and Pithias, circa 1566 I haue plied the Haruest, and stroke when the Yron was hotte. The meaning today is to act decisively and take your opportunities when they arise. Or: Don’t be too late. Because then you will lose a great opportunity.


Trojan horse It comes from ancient Greece. The Greek poet Homer ( 8th century BC) writes in his book The Odyssee about the 10-year Greek siege of Troja in Asia Minor. Then they built a huge horse of wood. A number of Greek soldiers were hiding inside the horse. Then the Trojans were tempted to bring the nice horse inside their city. And during the night the Greek soldiers came out and conquered and ravaged the city of Troja. The expression a Trojan horse is, therefore, since used to describe a special war trick. The same method was used by some prisoners in a German KZ camp to get out of the camp hidden in a big box. The indirect sense of the expression means that you use sneaky, hidden methods to obtain what you want. In the Internet world a Trojan horse is a small programme, which looks useful, but which in reality risks destroying a lot in your computer.



Vessel of the Danaids Danaos or Danaus was in Greek mythology the son of a king in Egypt. He had 50 daughters – called the Danaids. They were forced to marry 50 men. But when 49 of them during the wedding night killed their husbands they were afterwards condemned to pour water into a vessel, which had no bottom. And according to the legend they continue to do that all the time until this very day. In other words: this is a work which never ends. So the expression the vessel of the Danaids refers to a task, which is futile and useless, and which never ends.


When in Rome, do as the Romans do This expression means: It is polite, and possibly also advantageous, to abide by the customs of a society when one is a visitor. Why should an English proverb single out Rome and Roman values as especially to be emulated? Couldn't we have had a 'when in Ipswich, do as the Ipswichians do' for example? As it turns out, it's all to do with the travel arrangements of a couple of early Christian saints. St Augustine: Letters Volume I was translated from the Latin by Sister W. Parsons and published in 1951. Letter 54 to Januarius contains this original text, which date from circa 390 AD: Cum Romanum venio, ieiuno Sabbato; cum hic sum, non ieiuno: sic etiam tu, ad quam forte ecclesiam veneris, eius morem serva, si cuiquam non vis esse scandalum nec quemquam tibi. which was translated as: When I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday, but here [Milan] I do not. Do you also follow the custom of whatever church you attend, if you do not want to give or receive scandal. Januarius, who was later canonised as a martyr saint, was Bishop of Naples at the time. The above dates the source of the proverb to at least as early as the beginnings of the Christian church. The implied flexibility on dogma and acceptance of the religious and

social practices of other cultures seems to be more akin to the contemporary Buddhist teachings of the Dalai Lama than those of present day Christian authorities. The use of the proverb in English isn't recorded until much later - well into the Middle Ages. Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy was first published in 1621. Burton makes oblique reference to the phrase, without using it explicitly: Mercury, the planet, are good with good, bad with bad. When they are at Rome, they do there as they see done, puritans with puritans, papists with papists He was slightly predated by Henry Porter, who came a little nearer to the present day version of the proverb in his play The pleasant history of the two angry women of Abington, 1599: Nay, I hope, as I have temperance to forbear drink, so have I patience to endure drink: Ile do as company dooth; for when a man doth to Rome come, he must do as there is done. The Interesting letters of Pope Clement XIV [a.k.a. Lorenzo Ganganelli] were published in 1777. Letter XLIV [to Prior Dom Galliard] contains the earliest version of the proverb as currently used in English that I have found in print: The siesto, or afternoon's nap of Italy, my most dear and reverend Father, would not have alarmed you so much, if you had recollected, that when we are at Rome, we should do as the Romans do - cum Romano Romanus eris. The proverb is so clichĂŠd as to have been adapted to suit many other locations - this web search brings up thousands. Its familiarity, and the expectation that everyone knows the ending, has caused it also to be used in the shortened version - 'when in Rome...'. This dates back to at least the 1930s when a play of that title, written by Charles Faber, was performed in New York.



Niels Jørgen Thøgersen

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Expressions in english what's all that about  

Where do all the well known expressions and proverbs comefrom? And what do they mean today? This is a brief overview - which will be conti...