English idiomatic expressions can be over my head: if they are read literally, they make no sense. However, they can make sense if you know their origin (or if you make up its origin to fit the meaning). We have compiled 3 expressions with body parts with their meaning, a fake origin and their real origin. Let’s dive in!
An arm and a leg
Meaning: very expensive, said of something that costs a lot of money.
Popular origin: The tale is that paintings were more expensive the bigger they were, and that head and shoulders only were the cheapest. Painters would charge the most in portraits where they had to paint full bodies, arms and legs included. But there is no proof that painters charged by limbs and the real origin is more modern than that.
Real origin: The phrase was coined after WWII and refers to the tragedies of war. An arm and a leg refers to things one would not sell if not for a large sum of money. Many US soldiers lost their limbs while at war and the phrase may be referring to the high cost paid by the amputees. Another likely origin is that it comes from the two older expressions from the 19th century “I would give my right arm for…” and “[Even] if it takes a leg”, which has the same idea.
Meaning: A display of coldness or indifference, intended to wound.
Popular origin: It was said that when visitors were welcome in a home they were given a hot meal, but those who were not welcome were given cold shoulder of mutton. This is shown in several etymological texts, but there is no evidence to support it.
Real origin: the first appearance of the phrase is in Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Antiquary‘ in 1816.
“The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther“.
Cauld is Scottish for cold, and shouther is commonly used by Sir Walter Scott to say shoulder. Though he did not give any explanation of how cold shoulder derived into a description of aloofness, it is believed he coined “cold shoulder” because he had also coined other expressions. The phrase was commonly used after that in print and in novels.
Finger in every pie
Meaning: Being involved in many different things.
Popular origin: This phrase supposedly originated in the kitchen, where visitors would poke their fingers in all the pies because they could not resist testing them. What seemingly started as a literal expression, it came to mean having many interests, or even being opportunistic.
Real origin: The true origin is a bit blurry, but it dates back to the 17th century. The idea for the expression first appears in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, Act I, Scene I, when the Duke of Buckingham describes Cardinal Wolsey:
“The devil speed him! no man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger.”
But the first true variation of the phrase appeared in 1653’s book The Historie Of This Iron Age: Where Is Set Down The True State of Europe, As It Was In The Year 1500 by Jean-Nicolas de Parival:
“Lusatia, depending upon the Kingdom of Bohemia, was the allyance,and must needs, forsooth, have her Finger in the Pye.”
Either way, the meaning behind the expression has always been the same and thanks to literature it was spread to readers and English speakers in general.
Do you want to see more popular versus real origins of words? Let us know in the comments.
For more origins of words in English, click here.
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