Just for a change, today I’m not looking specifically at the origin of a phrase as I usually do, but on how we rarely stop to ask ourselves what they actually mean and in fact whether they make sense. Cheap at half the price springs to mind, as does You want to have your cake and eat it. What’s the point in having a cake unless you can eat it?! I might have mentioned in the distant past that when I was doing some historical research I came across this in a Victorian account as wanting to eat your cake and have it. That makes much more sense, implying that once it’s gone, it’s gone!
The meanings of some old sayings have become distorted because of the way language changes. The exception that proves the rule in its modern usage makes no sense when you think about it. If all blackbirds are black, coming across a white one doesn’t prove that all blackbirds are black! The word prove is at the heart of the problem, because in this saying it is used in the older, less common sense of test.
What brings all this up is reading about a Dutchman living in England who could never understand the phrase Grasp the nettle. In his humble opinion, the best thing to do with a nettle was not grasp it! Of course, it means that if you have to pull nettles up they’re supposed to be less likely to sting if you grasp them tightly than if you pussy-foot around. However, it always reminds me of an incident a few years ago when I used to work with a tough Scotsman, a former sergeant-major in the army.
To cut a long story short we were searching for something in a nettle-infested area, and being the macho man he was he got some of them out of the way in a very manly manner, grabbing them tightly and uprooting them in one impressive motion. “Ye have tae GRASP ’em, Martyn,’ I can still hear him saying.
We found what we were looking for and I was suitably impressed – until a few minutes later when we were sitting having a cuppa. When he thought I wasn’t looking I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he had turned red in the face and was surreptitiously rubbing his right hand and wincing with pain…