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A Tale Told by an Idiom
Yesterday one of my Japanese language partners asked me about the "故事" (koji) used in English. What are koji, you ask (as I did)? Apparently they are "idioms derived from historical events or classical literature of China". Did British history yield many idioms in common use?

I have to admit, my mind went blank. It's easy enough to come up with idioms swiped from literature, notably Shakespeare, but history? Most English idioms seem to come from common experiences, crafts and professions, the natural world, and so on. They don't tend to involve famous people or events - or, if they do, they don't stretch beyond a single word (Canutian, anyone?). The best I've come up with so far is "met his Waterloo".

There are some from the classical world - which stands to Britain much as classical China to Japan: "cut the Gordian knot", "Caesar's wife", or even "a cobbler should stick to his last". I could probably think of a few more, but it's still surprisingly thin pickings.

It's not that my mind is badly stocked with interesting facts and anecdotes (many of questionable veracity) about British and classical history, but that they've somehow failed to morph into idioms. We know about Alfred and the cakes, for example, or Robert the Bruce and the spider, but there isn't any common idiom derived from either encounter that might be muttered by people in similar circumstances.

Is there a rich vein of such sayings that has somehow slipped my mind? I would of course be happy to hear suggested examples!

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Is there a rich vein of such sayings that has somehow slipped my mind? I would of course be happy to hear suggested examples!

Coals to Newcastle? (Or is that not event-specific enough?)

Edited at 2016-10-17 06:58 am (UTC)

I suppose it's social history now! But I was thinking more specific.

[As a matter of fact, Newcastle is the only place my friend has stayed in in the UK. From an accent point of view, it's certainly jumping in at the deep end, to use a non-historical idiom.]

Edited at 2016-10-17 07:20 am (UTC)

(no subject) - sovay, 2016-10-17 07:23 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-10-17 07:27 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2016-10-17 07:32 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-10-17 07:41 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2016-10-17 07:50 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-10-17 07:52 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2016-10-17 07:59 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-10-17 08:02 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2016-10-17 08:41 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-10-17 07:30 am (UTC)(Expand)
sovay says I oughta throw some out there but it is late here and we are both punch-drunk from fatigue, so after laughing over cricket terms I have but two:

Tapping the Admiral (Nelson's body transported home from Trafalgar in the brandy)

Bob's your uncle (the uncle in this case appears to have been Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, who as Prime Minister appointed his nephew Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary for Ireland; hooray for nepotism!)

Ah yes, I'd heard the first but didn't know about the origin of the second - thank you!

(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-10-18 01:54 pm (UTC)(Expand)
The playing-fields of Eton?

Certainly qualifies as a Waterloo reference in its full form, thank you.

Going at something bald-headed?

There you've got me. I neither recognise it, nor know the historical reference. Can you enlighten me?

(no subject) - wellinghall, 2016-10-17 09:53 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-10-17 10:03 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - wellinghall, 2016-10-17 10:04 am (UTC)(Expand)
From Arthurian legend:

Round table
Holy grail
Sir Galahad
and there must be others...

And from Roman history:

Crossing the Rubicon
Ides of March


If we're excluding classical myth then I suppose we ought to exclude Arthur, at least in his more obviously unhistorical, high-chivalric incarnations - but yes and yes to the Caesarian refs! Thank you.

He's a quisling?

That's European history, but not particularly British: Vidkun Quisling was the Nazi puppet prime minister of Norway.

(no subject) - sartorias, 2016-10-17 12:08 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - redbird, 2016-10-17 12:32 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-10-17 05:24 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - shewhomust, 2016-10-18 10:29 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-10-18 10:31 am (UTC)(Expand)
There's curate's egg from literature. Then there's Karno's Circus/Army. My uncle used to describe a chaotic situation as "a right Karno's" or "It's like Karno's circus in here."

I'd never heard of Karno - thank you!

You also have Luddite. And would Dickensian count?

Luddite, certainly.

"looks like the Somme" about anywhere very muddy or, by extension, incredibly untidy. Definitely WW1.

"Jewel in the crown" used sarcastically - Victoria RI.

Canute and the waves - often misused.

Would "blitz" count for destruction and/or very swift, brutal cleaning?

I don't think Canute and the waves is an idiom in the sense of being a set phrase, but the anecdote is certainly put to same kind of use that an idiom would be!

Blitz is a good example of an individual word, I think. The Somme too, though probably on the wane now.

(no subject) - gillo, 2016-10-17 11:10 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Queen Anne is dead.

Nine

Edited at 2016-10-17 03:11 pm (UTC)

Oh yes, good one.

Thin red line? (although this is a misquotation).

And from slightly later that day, death or glory?

The thin red line and hence the thin blue line, presumably.

(no subject) - wellinghall, 2016-10-17 05:43 pm (UTC)(Expand)

Oh yes, good one!

Going over the top?

As a World War One reference, presumably? I'd never really thought about whether that's where it comes from, but a quick look at Google Ngram suggests you may be right.

Edited at 2016-10-18 06:12 am (UTC)

In the US you sometimes hear "John Hancock" for signature (from the guy who signed the Declaration of Independence first, and in very large letters).

Oh yes, that's a good one!

Not really an idiom, but if we're allowed individual words, would "boycott" count? Also you could make a case for "guy," coming from Guy Fawkes by way of "penny for the guy."

I have seen various attempts to explain "sending to Coventry" with references to various obscure events in British history, but none sound entirely convincing.

"Blitz" has been mentioned, but what about "blitz spirit," which has come to be used more widely than just referring to WW2.

Good suggestions, thanks - and we might add the Dunkirk spirit to the Blitz one.

I'd wondered whether "guy" came from Guy Fawkes, but hadn't known it till now. So "Guys and Dolls" refers to two types of effigy, in fact.

(no subject) - vschanoes, 2016-10-18 07:47 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ladyofastolat, 2016-10-18 08:52 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2016-10-22 12:57 am (UTC)(Expand)
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