By hook or by crook The achievement of a goal with determination, by fair means or foul, is described as getting things done ‘by hook or by crook’. The origin of this phrase is linked with an early British practice, at a time when forests were still the exclusive property of royalty. For any unauthorized commoner, then, to gather firewood in them was a crime, poor people being the only exception. Though they were not permitted to cut or saw off branches, they were free to remove withered timber from the ground or even a tree, doing so by means of either a hook or a crook.
Bury the hatchet To bury the hatchet means to create peace. With hostilities at an end, the hatchet was no longer needed, and therefore could be disposed of. Now a merely figurative expression, the phrase is based on an actual practice of North American Indians. When negotiating peace, they buried all their weapons; their tomahawks, scalping knives and clubs. Apart from showing good faith, simultaneously it made it impossible for them to go on fighting.
Best foot forward When you are trying to make a good impression it is said that you should put your ‘best foot forward’. There are many options as to where this phrase came from, one being that it was believed that ‘the left’ was the realm of the devil, of evil and misfortune. After all the Latin word sinister means left, and in English sinister has kept its ominous meaning. Hence, it was advisable to keep the left foot behind and step forward with the best, the right, foot first. But this phrase seems to have come from the fashion world, rather than the occult. 1of 2
Best foot forward (Continued) The saying can be traced to male vanity, particularly apparent in the late eighteenth century, the period of the dandy. His desire to attract people’s attention and admiration took strange and elaborate forms. At the time, people imagined that their two legs differed in shape and that ‘normally’ one was more becoming than the other. To draw attention to it they kept the worse one in the background, literally putting ‘their best foot forward’, and with it, of course, their leg. 2 of 2
Beat around the bush Someone who doesn’t get to the point is said to ‘beat around the bush’. The origin of this phrase is, undoubtedly, from hunting, and more specifically from the hunting of boars. A ferocious animal, it often hid in the undergrowth and beaters were employed and ordered to go straight in to chase it out. But very much aware, and afraid, of the animals’ sharp tusks, they much preferred to merely ‘beat around the bush’ a practice strongly disapproved of by their masters.
Break a leg To wish an actor prior to his going on stage to ‘break a leg’ is a well-known practice. A pretty strange wish, actually it is meant magically to bring him luck and make sure that his performance will be a success. From the superstitious age it was thought that jealous forces, always present, are only too anxious to spoil any venture. A good luck wish would alert and provoke them to do their evil work, whilst a curse will make them turn their attention elsewhere. The underlying principle is the belief that if you wish evil, then good will come. I’m sure it’s called reverse psychology these days.
Bite the bullet A person who ‘bites the bullet’, without any sign of fear, acts with great courage in the face of adversity. The phrase recollects a dangerous army practice in the 1850s. Soldiers were then equipped with the British Enfield rifle. Prior to using it, they had to bite off the head of the cartridge to expose the explosive to the spark which would ignite it. The procedure was fraught with danger, particularly so in the heat of battle. It needed firmness and courage, as even the slightest deviation or hesitation would endanger the soldier.
Be on a good footing A pleasant relationship with other people, not least those in a superior position, is portrayed as being ‘on a good footing’ with them. There are two thoughts as to where this saying came from. Some say the phrase goes back to a practice of early apprenticeships. It was the custom, on the first day at work, for apprentices to invite all their workmates for drinks. The new apprentice ‘footed the bill’. If proved a generous host, he made friends for keeps. The hospitality would never be forgotten. Recalling how much it had cost, it was said the novice gained “a good footing” 1 of 2
Be on a good footing (continued) A second derivation links the phrase with an early and bizarre interpretation of human anatomy, the importance given to the length of one of a person’s digits. At one time, the dimension of the middle toes determined a person’s ‘standing’ in the community. Thus, the measurement of their foot decided their status in the eyes of others. Those whom nature and genes had endowed with large feet were lucky to be ‘on a good footing’. Draw your own conclusions on this one! 2 of 2
Bark up the wrong tree Originating back when hunting was still a major sport, this phrase came from when animals were used to track, catch or retrieve prey. This applies, not least, to dogs. Dogs were used in the chasing of raccoons, which was chiefly undertaken at night and were trained to indicate the tree in which the animal had taken refuge by barking at it. Of course, even dogs can err and, at times, barked up the wrong tree.