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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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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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It occurs to me that American idioms of this kind come less from history than from sports. I read a medievalist fantasy novel in which the spear-carriers assured the beleaguered heroine that they were "in her corner." That sounded very wrong.

Oh, that's a bit painful.

Brewer's - along with many others - seems quite confident that the phrase "turn a blind eye" is a reference to Lord Nelson, although I am less convinced.

You're right to be sceptical. The OED lists numerous earlier examples.

Along similar lines, I'd always vaguely assumed "that's one in the eye for" to be referencing Harold at Hastings - or at least common reading of the Bayeux tapestry rendition of events - but can't now find anything about the origin of that phrase. Brewer's is currently in a box :-(

Neither of those seems to me to need any back-story to explain them.

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