Don’t Say That! Idioms and Sayings in #historical #fiction #wordplay #wordorigins #amwriting #amediting #mustread #histfic

Let’s talk about those colloquialisms we all rely on in everyday conversation. Phrases we don’t necessarily know where they come from, what they actually mean, or how on earth anyone came up with them. I have five of them in mind to discuss today: “butterflies in my stomach,” “by-your-leave,” “get on my nerves,” “up-and-coming,” and “worth his salt.” Ready?

I’ll take them in order, starting with the idea of butterflies in someone’s stomach. I think we all know this is supposed to evoke the sense of a fluttering kind of disturbance one feels inside when nervous, anxious, or extremely curious perhaps. It’s often associated with falling in love, experiencing that initial attraction to someone else. I really love this phrase! However, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) won’t let me use it in my 1780s stories because the first citation of its use is in 1982. Again, that just means I had to be more creative with how I described my character’s reaction to her guy. Not a bad thing at all to be forced to invent something fresh and new rather than rely on pat phrases. But still, I really had wanted to use it! Sigh.

So now, “by-your-leave,” we’ll talk about that phrase. This phrase literally is “asking of permission” or “an expression of apology for not having asked permission.” It even has its own entry in the OED, which a lot of these phrases do not; they’re sub-definitions of another noun (the “butterflies” phrase was found under “butterfly,” for example). Here again, the first citation isn’t until 1914, so I couldn’t use that phrase even though it would likely be easily understood as to my meaning. Again, I’m a contemporary author telling a story about a previous era but using concepts and phrasing as close to what an actual person would use to create the most authentic reading experience I can. Given that I didn’t live in that day and age centuries ago, that is.

Now some of you may be thinking all of this “gets on your nerves,” and trust me, it can! But that phrase also didn’t become a “thing” until 1903 to mean “to (begin to) affect one with irritation, impatience, fear, or the like.” Now the word “nerve” (the main entry in the OED) has been in existence far longer, as in 1538, but not with this particular usage. So of course then I resorted to using “irritated” or “annoyed” instead. Easy enough to switch up to make the story move alone and yet be true to the times.

The next “up-and-coming” phrase has been around since 1889 to mean “active, alert, wide-awake, energetic” but I wanted the definition of “promising, making progress, beginning to achieve success” which didn’t enter the written language until 1926. Note that this phrase also has its own entry, which tells me it’s been used widely, despite being chiefly an Americanism.

Finally, any author “worth his salt” will recognize that understanding the evolution of the use and meaning of words and phrases is important. In this case, the definition I intended was that of “efficient or capable.” The OED includes this under the main noun entry of “salt” and notes that it is “usually with expressed or implied negative.” Either way, the first citation is 1830 in Marryat’s King’s Own with “The captain…is not worth his salt.”

I was curious how this phrase came to be, so I checked in Morris’ Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. Apparently, the Romans used to pay their soldiers partly in salt. Later, the salt was changed to be a monetary allowance in order buy their own salt, which is where the word salarium or “of salt” came from. Both “salt” and “salary” share the same Latin root, sal, meaning “salt.” Today, of course, this is known as a “salary.”

I hope you’re enjoying these little forays into the usage and the changing of the meanings associated with words and phrases. I totally admit to being a word geek! I love word games and playing with ways to say something mundane in a new way.

What common phrases do you use without understanding the origin? Can you name some? There are many associated with the advent and advances in technology—“hang up the phone” or “roll down the window” in a car being the first two to come to mind. I’m happy to help discover the inspiration for it if I can! Until next time!


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Emily's Vow Finalist SealEmily Sullivan’s greatest fear is dying in childbirth, as did her twin sister and their mother. Despite her half-hearted protests, her father insists Frank Thomson is the perfect man for both her protection from the vengeful British and as a husband. Frank always loved Emily despite her refusal to return his affections. A patriot spy posing as a loyalist officer, when Frank learns Emily’s been imprisoned for her father’s privateering, he risks his own neck to free his love.

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